A family tradition in my youth was worshiping at a Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve and driving around nearby neighborhoods with wonderful holiday light displays while listening for NORAD reports on Santa Claus' whereabouts. As a jaded grown-up, I presumed that these reports were performance shtick on a long media night. Little did I know that the reports were real and that a typo and the good cheer of an Air Force colonel brought joy to the world.
During the 1950s, America was engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet Union which threatened to become hot at any moment. School children of the era was raised to be prepared to duck and cover at any given moment due to a sneak nuclear attack from the enemy. Soon, Sputnik's successful launch made watching the skies even more important.
In Colorado Springs,Colorado at the Continental Air Defense Command a.k.a. CONAD (the predecessor to the North American Aerospace Defense Command or NORAD), there was a red telephone on the commander's desk which had a secret telephone number known only by a four star General at the Pentagon, which would have been used to convey news of an enemy aerial attack.
However, in December 1955, the CONAD commander's red phone rang and the voice on the other line was a little voice which asked "Is this really Santa Claus". At first the Colonel was upset at what he thought was a crank call, but when he heard crying, the straight laced Colonel changed his demeanor. The CONAD commander ho-ho-hoed and asked the caller if he had been a good boy. Afterwards, the Santa Colonel asked to speak to his mother.
It seems that a copy for a Sears Roebuck newspaper ad had a misprint, so "Santa's private phone" number not connecting to Toyland but was actually the secret military number for what is now NORAD. Colonel Shoup delegated a few airman to act like Santa Claus for kiddie red phone callers.
Col. Shoup's daughter, Terri Van Keuren, recounted: "It got to be a big joke at the command center. You know, 'The old man's really flipped his lid this time. We're answering Santa calls". So much so, on Christmas Eve 1955, airmen modified the big glass board used to track air flights and included a drawing of a sleigh and eight reindeer coming from the North Pole.
When Col. Shoup saw this modified big board, he exclaimed: "What is this?". His subordinates apologized and insisted that they were just making a a joke. Shoup pondered the predicament for a bit and then telephoned a radio station with the message: "This is the Commander at the Combat Air Center, and we have an unidentified flying object. Why, it looks like a sled.". Hence the tradition began.
Now kids can call 1-877 HI-NORAD (1-877-446-6723) to talk to NORAD staff about Santa's exact location. The internet tracker for the big man in red began in 1998 with the SantaCam. At noradsanta.org, people can view the SantaCams from around the world as well as understand NORAD's main mission. Last year, "Operation Feel" had F-18 fighter jets escorting Santa and his sleigh, which led CNN reporters questioning if the US military had taken possession of Santa Claus. Of course, these reporters failed to report on "Operation Noble Eagle" with the Royal Canadian Air Force escorts over their territory or how these videos infuse some of NORAD's primary mission to girls and boys along with the spirit of the season.
Colonel Shoup died in 2009. But even in his 90s, Shoup proudly carried a briefcase which he treated like had top secret information that contained letters thanking him for having a good sense of humor in allowing NORAD to track Santa.