By Sgt. 1st Class Gail Braymen
NORAD Public Affairs
Lt.-Gen. Rick Findley, deputy commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, and Robert Taylor, senior property manager at Citadel Mall, perform the ceremonial ribbon cutting during the Nov. 18 launch of the Citadel Mall's Santa Tracking Station. Photo by Tom Kimmell
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- In 1955, military operators in the Continental Air Defense Command, predecessor to the North American Aerospace Defense Command, first tracked Santa Claus' magical Christmas Eve journey around the world. This year, NORAD is kicking off the 50th anniversary of Santa tracking, and it's shaping up to be a season of "firsts."
Now through Dec. 25: "We have the first-ever Citadel Mall Santa Tracking Village," said 1st Lt. Jody Vazquez, co-director of Santa Tracking Operations. "We have worked in partnership with the Citadel Mall (in Colorado Springs) where they have created a massive village that includes a 25-foot tree and a tracking map and viewfinder where children can watch a NORAD Tracks Santa video."
Friday, Nov. 25: "For the first time, we will be part of the Holiday Lighting Extravaganza in Pueblo, Colorado," Vazquez said. "We will be tracking Santa from the North Pole to Pueblo."
Sunday, Nov. 27: "This will be our first time ever in the Hollywood Christmas Parade, which will be broadcast live over the Tribune network to three million people," Vazquez said.
"We will have four members of NORAD along with a military vehicle that will represent the NORAD Tracks Santa program participating in the parade," said Master Sgt. John Tomassi, Santa Tracking Operations co-director. The parade will be broadcast live on WGN beginning at 6 p.m. MST.
Saturday, Dec. 3: "We will be in the Festival of Lights Parade here in Colorado Springs," Vazquez said. "It's the first time we'll be participating in this great community event."
The tradition of tracking Santa began in 1955, when a local Sears, Roebuck and Co. store ran a newspaper ad urging children to make a phone call on Christmas Eve and talk to Santa Claus. As fate would have it, the phone number was misprinted and, instead of reaching Santa, youngsters found themselves talking with Air Force Col. Harry Shoup of the Continental Air Defense Command at Cheyenne Mountain.
Rather than hanging up, Shoup and his troops answered every child's call that night with a report of Santa's location. CONAD personnel kept up the practice until 1958, when the North American Aerospace Defense Command was formed and took over Santa tracking duties.
NORAD has continued the Santa tracking tradition for several reasons, according to Tomassi.
"I think in the initial stages, back in the 50s and 60s, it was just a novelty kind of thing," he said. "A lot of people -- children and their families -- do this tracking Santa as a tradition in their family.
"We've recognized now that people have taken this program as a tradition, and what we can do is educate them. We do track Santa; however, we do provide for the defense of the North American aerospace also. We use the satellites to track Santa, we use the radar, we use jet fighters, but all of those exact same things are what we use to monitor the aerospace of North America."
While youngsters are tracking Santa's flight, they may also learn a thing or two about the world around them.
"We think of it as a geography lesson," Tomassi said, "because the different places that Santa visits or sightings that we have, a lot of people haven't heard of. If we can get some children to go and look at a map to find out where Timbuktu is, or where India is, or Pakistan, or wherever, then we feel all the better for that."
Last Christmas Eve, volunteers at Cheyenne Mountain answered nearly 55,000 phone calls and 35,000 e-mails from children around the world. During the month of December, the NORAD Tracks Santa Web site had 912 million hits from 181 countries.
This year, about 500 volunteers -- most of them U.S. and Canadian military personnel and their families -- will report for telephone-answering duty on Christmas Eve. But already, youngsters are sending messages to Santa via the NORAD Tracks Santa Web site.
"E-mails are arriving from India and Ireland and all over the world already from children with their wish lists who want to talk to Santa," Tomassi said. "We receive, on average, 200 e-mails a day."
NORAD Tracks Santa volunteers will answer calls from 2 a.m. MST Dec. 24 to 2 a.m. MST Dec. 25 at 1-877-HiNORAD (1-877-446-6723), toll-free in the United States; or (719) 474-2111. The NORAD Tracks Santa Web site, available in six languages, is at www.noradsanta.org and will go completely live on Nov. 25.