Notes from the Curator's Office:

Santa holds the NORAD emblem: Is the relationship a little too cozy? (USAF)

Santa Tracking

What is the real reason the U.S. government is interested in keeping tabs on the jolly old elf?

(12/06) At the climax of the holiday movie, Miracle on 42nd Street, an old man finds himself in a competency hearing because he has had the audacity to claim he is Santa Claus when, of course, everybody knows Santa Claus doesn't exist. The old fellow gets off the hook, however, when the US Postal Service delivers to him a truckload of sacks filled with letters addressed to Santa Claus. The idea is that if the US Postal Service - part of the United States government - thinks Santa is real, then he must be real. We all trust the government, right?

I submit that we can no longer accept this premise as proof of the existence of Santa. In 1971 the US Post Office reorganized as the United States Postal Service, now a quasi-independent agency. Because of this we can no longer trust the agency's judgment about the existence of this merry old elf. Don't panic, however. I have a substitute for the Postal Service. An agency of the US government that has been charged with the safety and the protection of the nation itself: The Defense Department.

Or, a little more specifically, the North American Aerospace Defense Command sometimes known by the acronym NORAD. In fact, NORAD just doesn't have the backing of the United States government, it is a joint venture with Canada, so it is trusted with the well being of not only Americans citizens, but Canadians as well.

Now for those of you not familiar with NORAD, these are the people working behind the 25-ton blast doors at a high-security base buried under Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. If you've ever seen the movie War Games, you will remember some very serious-looking people in uniforms, bent over computer consoles with huge screens on the wall displaying maps of the world showing ICBM missiles about to obliterate every major city in North America. The real NORAD looks a lot like this (without the incoming missiles) and is charged with watching any potentially-hostile aircraft, satellite or rocket that approaches or passes over North American airspace. This means, of course, in order to do this they have to also track non-hostile aircraft. And this means that every Christmas Eve they are tracking Santa.

The north entrance to NORAD's Cheyenne Mountain facility (USAF).

On His Trail for Half a Century

According to the story, NORAD first became associated with Kris Kringle back in 1955. A misprint in a local newspaper accidentally directed calls meant to go to a Santa hotline (via a department store) to the Director of Operations at the Continental Air Defense agency (NORAD's predecessors). At that the Director of Operations there was one Colonel Harry Shoup. Apparently Colonel Shoup wasn't known for his sense of humor and wasn't happy about some practical joker in his office misusing the government phone system. On the second call, however, the Colonel realized the inquires were for real after he talked with the mother of one of the children. She informed Shoup about the ad and the misprint. Realizing that he was bound to get swamped with calls that night, he had them transferred to his staff and directed them to give the location of Santa to any child that called. Soon, a makeshift reindeer and sleigh appeared on NORAD's wall-sized electronic map used to track aircraft and a Christmas tradition that has now lasted over fifty years had begun.

Every year NORAD received more calls. Volunteers from the NORAD staff started coming in to help handle the load and eventually major media outlets also started calling NORAD for updates. In 1997, the service was expanded to include a NORAD Tracks Santa website ( that last year received over a billion hits. The website includes almost anything you would want to find out about the jolly old elf including his current position on "radar" and secrets about his North Pole workshop.

According to the Canadian Air Force website in 2005, fighter jets were altered to capture pictures of Santa in flight. "NORAD SantaCams are ultra-cool, high-tech, high-speed digital cameras that are mounted on the CF-18 jets," said aircraft technicians at the Fifteenth Fighter Wing. "We also have some positioned at strategic places around the world to track his Yuletide journey and feed those images back to our website."

These pictures are actually CGI video that show the reindeer and sleigh as they pass by such famous landmarks as the Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building and Big Ben. Every hour as Santa passes each new location on his round-the-world flight on Christmas Eve, a new video becomes available for download. How does NORAD find Santa to take pictures of him? After all, he doesn't usually file a flight plan, does he? According to documents on the website, Rudolf's nose generates enough infrared energy to show up like the rocket engine of a missile and it sets off the heat sensors on the military's early warning satellites.

A NORAD command center: Serious business (USAF).

Conspiracy Theory

Now the Scrooges among our readers might wonder why the government is spending so much money answering calls and building websites on this subject. After all, Santa isn't really a national threat, is he?

My own personal conspiracy theory is that the government has this program because they are secretly interested in Santa and envy his technology. Can you imagine a supersonic bomber drawn by hay-fed reindeer? Or having the capability to precisely target any building around the world for payload delivery (gifts or perhaps something a little more explosive…). How about the intelligence-gathering capabilities you might get if you could slip in and out of a building without leaving a trace (except for some missing milk and cookies). The possibilities boggle the mind…

Perhaps I'm just being paranoid. The truth is that all of the NORAD staff working on Santa tracking are volunteers, and commercial partners, like AOL and IBM, have picked up some of the costs involved in this project; so little in the way of taxpayer monies are involved. And it can't be much of a serious government program if some significant tax dollars aren't wasted, can it?

So, Virginia, is there really a Santa Claus. Well, NORAD says there is and that's good enough for me. Now, if we can only get them to come clean on some of those UFO sightings…

Copyright Lee Krystek 2006. All Rights Reserved.


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Christmas Visions of Thomas Nast

March of the Wooden Soldiers

NORAD Santa Tracking