According to legend, on December 24th 1955, Sears department store placed an advertisement in a Colorado Springs newspaper, where they told children they could call Santa Claus with the number ME 2-6681. Allegedly one digit was misprinted, and calls came through to Colorado Springs, Continental Air Defence (CONAD) Center.
In one version of the story, the calls went through to the “red telephone” hotline that connected CONAD to command authorities at Strategic Air Command. Colonel Harry Shoup, who was a Crew Commander on duty, answered the first call. The story goes that he told his staff to give all children who called later a “current location” of Santa.
Another description, that is more widely believed is that on November 30th 1955 a child trying to reach Santa on the hotline number in the Sears advert, misdialed and got to Shoup at his desk at CONAD. The response was not particularly kind, and no more calls came to CONAD. Then, when a member of his staff put a picture of Santa Claus on a board tracking an unidentified aircraft that december, Shoup saw an opportunity for public relations.
He asked CONAD’s public relations officer, Col. Barney Oldfield to inform the press that CONAD was tracking Santa’s Sleigh. In the press release, he added that “CONAD, Army, Navy and Marine Air Forces will continue to track and guard Santa and his sleigh from the U.S. against possible attack from those who do not believe in Christmas”. Shoup did not intend to repeat the stunt in 1956, but Oldfield informed him that the Associated press and United Press International were awaiting reports that CONAD was tracking sta again. Shoup agreed, and the annual tradition was born.
In 1958, North America Air Defence Command (NORAD) took over reporting responsibility from CONAD. The reporting became more elaborate, with stories about santa taking rest stops, or one where Santa needed to bandage up one of the reindeer. Eventually, NORAD was renamed the North American Aerospace Defence Command in 1981, and created and published a hotline for the general public to call and get updates on Santa Claus’s progress.
Now, Norad relies on volunteers to make the program possible. In 2014, NORAD answered 100,000 phone calls, and in 2015, more than 1200 U.S. and canadian military personnel volunteered to staff the phone lines. From 1997 the program has had a major internet presence with NORADSanta.org. It also has a twitter account of @NORADsanta.