Christmas Tradition: NORAD Santa Tracker Turns 57

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3 days, 11 hours, 34 minutes and — as of right now — 19 seconds until the NORAD Santa Tracker becomes active. For more than half a century, the NORAD Santa Tracker has been tracking and disseminating Santa’s exact location as he leaves the North Pole and journeys around the world delivering presents on Christmas Eve. It’s labeled as entertainment, but I beg to differ. Here’s the web site so you can bookmark it: http://www.noradsanta.org/en/

I love the Santa Tracker. First, a countdown like that always reminds me of the Louis Prima song, “Five Months, Two Weeks, Two Days.” So much so in fact, that I can’t not say the time remaining just like Louis does in his song. And that’s always worth a smile. Second, I love the Santa Tracker because of the technology it employs and its no-cost-is-too-great-for-the-U.S.-taxpayer philosophy (bouncing radar beams all over the globe? Are you kidding me? No wonder we’re on the edge of the fiscal cliff!). But I love the Santa Tracker most of all, because it reminds me of all the years I would use the Santa Tracker on Christmas Eve to report Santa’s exact location when I was doing weather broadcasts on the radio here in Houston for KUHF-FM. Typically the Gulf Coast weather was non-eventful, and that would allow me to devote the entire weathercast, twice an hour, to Santa’s precise location.

This is what started it all – the wrong phone number placed in an advertisement for Sears in a Colorado Springs newspaper. Image: Wikipedia

I couldn’t help but think of when I was a kid and watched the Santa Tracker on TV — I was riveted to the whole process of tracking Santa by radar. It was like, “Santa doesn’t know it, but we know where he is!”

Do kids still think this is cool? When I was doing those radio  reports I tried to make them as “official” as I could, hoping that there was some little boy or little girl riveted to the report just as I was 40 years ago.

What’s that, you say? The Santa Tracker doesn’t go back that far? Oh, indeed it does! All the way back to the black and white days of 1955. And, as the story goes, it all started with a wrong phone number placed by Sears in a Colorado Springs newspaper. The advertisement promised that childern could talk to Santa, but instead of ringing at the local Sears Department Store, the phone rang just up the road at the Colorado Springs’ Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD). The officer on duty told his staff to provide Santa’s enroute location to the children who called, and the tradition that is now 57 years old began. Three years after that, CONAD was replaced by NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command).

Volunteers, both military and civilian, staff the NORAD Santa Tracker phones, email, Facebook and Twitter accounts. Photo: NORAD Santa Tracker Facebook Page

Back in the day, calls were fielded by actual CONAD and NORAD personnel, but I’m sure you’re not surprised to learn those calls today are handled by volunteers. And these volunteers are busier than ever with more than 70,000 phone calls and 12,000 emails from 200 countries. Today, the NORAD folks use Google Analytics to anticipate staffing needs and schedule the volunteers accordingly. And if that sounds high tech, consider that last year the NORAD folks had more than 100,000 Twitter followers and nearly a million Facebook fans. Twitter is slightly down this year (96,000) and Facebook is holding about steady (1,071,503), but you can boost those numbers yourself by clicking here for Twitter and here for Facebook.

I’m not in the radio business any more, but I look back on those days and I can easily say that Christmas Eve was my favorite night of the year to work. I felt like I was part of something really big. Not only was I tied into the NORAD tracking system, but I was inserting myself into the magic of Christmas for the little ones of Southeast Texas who happened to be listening to the radio on Christmas Eve. How great is that?

This year it looks like Santa will be battling frigid temperatures and even a monster snow storm in the middle of the United States. Nothing, I’m sure, he can’t handle.

3 days, 11 hours, 10 minutes, 8 seconds…

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