You’ve probably heard the story by now: On Christmas Eve 1955, a young boy in Colorado Springs dialed a Sears-sponsored hotline that let kids talk with Santa Claus. But instead of reaching Santa, he was connected to the red phone at CONAD, the military command center charged with patrolling the skies for any nuclear missiles coming from the Soviet Union. The local newspaper had mistakenly printed the wrong number.
At first the man in charge in Colorado Springs, Colonel Harry Shoup, thought the child caller was a joke. But eventually he realized what had happened and played along in good spirits, telling his men to field calls all night from kids trying to reach Santa. And so a CONAD tradition (now kept alive by NORAD, known Santa-trackers) was born.
It’s a cute story that pops up in the news every year. The only problem? It’s not true.
Left: 1955 ad for Sears’ Santa hotline; Right: Undated photo of Colonel Harry Shoup
In the 1950s, CONAD and NORAD were established as organizations responsible for keeping the United States and Canada safe from a possible missile attack by the Soviet Union. But they were also looking for ways to justify their existence to adults and soften their image with children. Despite our skewed memories of the post-WWII era, Americans weren’t that excited about the idea of perpetual war.
For the grownups, that PR campaign consisted of a slew of films in 1955 that tried to convince doubters of the Cold War’s urgency. The kids, meanwhile, got the Santa Tracker, promoted through newspapers, radio, TV, and eventually the internet.
It was a smart move for the military. When American kids asked their parents what NORAD was, the U.S. parents would be able to respond “those are the people who help Santa” rather than “those are the people who are ensuring our second strike capabilities after you and everyone in your play group are turned to dust by a nuclear attack.”
NORAD’s Santa tracker program is one of the most successful military PR campaigns of the last century. It’s even cited in public relations textbooks as a shining example of how to run a Christmas-themed PR campaign. And it’s still going strong.
This year NORAD will “track Santa” as he arrives from the North Pole, helping keep him safe as he circles the globe delivering presents to all the good Christian children. Kids can call a phone number that reaches volunteers at NORAD, follow along online, or even download the official Santa tracker app. Historians who study Christmas have noted that NORAD’s storyline about protecting Santa on Christmas Eve is one of the few modern tweaks to the Santa Claus story that has really stuck.
So what’s the real story? Some parts of the wrong phone number myth are accurate, but the origin story for this too-cute-to-be-true tale has changed ever so slightly with each generation over the past six decades.
Yes, Colonel Shoup got a call at CONAD that turned out to be a wrong number. But it wasn’t on Christmas Eve and there was no misprint in the newspaper, even though Snopes claims there was. It was just some kid who happened to get his numbers mixed up. And as for Colonel Shoup’s reaction? It was more like the kind of reaction you’d expect from a military officer in charge of ordering a strike that had the potential to end life on Earth as we know it. Which is to say, Shoup was not amused. And he wasn’t inundated with calls throughout the night that his men had to take.
Below, the December 1, 1955 Pasadena Independent newspaper, which helps shine some light on the real story:
The mistaken call’s real value was in planting the seed of a Santa idea. Who better than Ol’ Saint Nick to join the fight against the godless commies in the Soviet Union? The phone call happened on November 30, 1955 but that coming Christmas Eve, the military embraced this idea of Santa being protected by American forces. Santa was enlisted as a character that would help fight the good fight against non-believers.
The Associated Press syndicated a story on Christmas Eve, 1955 about Santa being granted safe passage by CONAD. Emphasis mine.
Colorado Springs, Colo., Dec 23 (AP) — Santa Claus Friday was assured safe passage into the United States by the Continental Air Defense Combat Operations Center here which began plotting his journey from the North Pole early Friday morning.
CONAD said first reports of its radar and ground observer outposts indicate Santa was traveling about 45 knots at an altitude of 35,000 feet and should arrive in the United States early Saturday night for his annual visit.
U.S. and Canadian defense units will steer him into the prevailing jet stream which should double his speed, and around stormy weather west of the Hudson Bay areas.
CONAD, Army, Navy and Marine Air Forces will continue to track and guard Santa and his sleigh on his trip to and from the U.S. against possible attack from those who do not believe in Christmas.
And Santa’s track, being plotted here on the main surveillance board, is a very wide one, indicating that his sleigh is heavily loaded with toys and goodies.
The Soviets were so evil that they’d even attack Santa if given the chance. But the U.S. military wasn’t going to let that happen.
Over the next six decades the origin story evolved. In some official versions it’s a boy who first calls the number. In others, it’s a girl. Sometimes there’s acknowledgement that the first caller just lucked upon the wrong number. But more commonly here in the 21st century, it’s reported as a “misprint” in the Colorado Springs Gazette.
All of this coincided with a big media push around air defense capabilities back in 1955. The Jimmy Stewart movie Strategic Air Command was released in 1955 in cooperation with the U.S. Air Force, and was aimed at all the veterans who didn’t believe America should be in a state of perpetual war. Jimmy Stewart, America’s everyman and a real life war veteran, comes to understand that the Cold War dictates a constant state of readiness, and air power that can strike against enemies with virtually no notice.
The short subject film 24 Hour Alert from Warner Bros. starring Jack Webb of Dragnet fame also made the rounds, showing off America’s fighting fleet. That film was based on the experiences of none other than Colonel Shoup and his time in Madison, Wisconsin during the early 1950s where people complained that the jets swooping overhead were too noisy. The film explained that noises like that were the cost of freedom.
All of which is to say that the U.S. military knew how to create media that advanced its interests. And it wasn’t shy about imploring all Americans to see its point of view. It’s important to see the Santa story within the context of every other piece of media that the military was producing at the time. There was plenty of overlap from what adults were hearing to what the kids were being taught—even in the people who were delivering the message, as evidenced by Colonel Shoup’s tremendous media savvy.
Vinyl cover art from 1964 via The Basement Rug
The PR campaign for tracking Santa existed for a few years simply as a recurring notice every Christmas Eve in newspapers. But by the 1960s, NORAD started sending out vinyl records to radio stations so that messages of Santa’s progress could be played in between Christmas music. They released a record in 1964, and another in 1968 which included tracks that stations around the country were supposed to play on Christmas Eve.
Audio tracks from The Basement Rug
The records of the 1960s also included music from the NORAD Commanders Orchestra, the big band group organized by NORAD. You can hear music from the NORAD Commanders on YouTube. And yes, that’s right, NORAD had a house band.
NORAD didn’t give up on print entirely. Throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, they were heavily promoting the idea that Santa Claus was a Cold Warrior, protected by the brave people of NORAD. This message was splashed all over newspapers around the world.
Below, an Associated Press photo from 1970 showing a lieutenant tracking Santa on his computer terminal.
But by the 1970s NORAD also introduced TV commercials that ran on stations around the United States. The 3-minute commercial below showed jets scrambling to intercept a foreign aircraft on Christmas Eve. I had the commercial digitized from the National Archives and have uploaded it below.
“We’re now scrambling jet interceptors to identify this unknown craft,” the narrator of the commercial explains. NORAD eventually learns that the “nine unknown objects” is actually Santa and his reindeer.
Okay control, I have an identification. You won’t believe this, it’s you know who... a very fat man, he’s dressed in red and he’s piloting a sleigh pulled by reindeer...
Roger that, Frosty Leader, we pick him up every year at this time. Attention all North American Air Defense Command radar, missile, and fighter interceptor units: this jolly old man and his cargo are to receive your defense escort and safe journey. Merry Christmas to all, and out.
The media blitz continued into the 1980s and didn’t let up after the end of the Cold War. In fact, NORAD’s Santa Tracker found new life in a cool new technology called the web. In 1997 the Santa tracking efforts moved online, opening up myriad possibilities for interactivity. NORAD partnered with America Online, with a company called Analytical Graphics supplying the cutting edge CG images that amazed kids who couldn’t get enough of this newfangled technology called the internet. Just don’t forget to install your Shockwave Flash player.
The screenshot below comes from the Santa Tracker website circa 2000.
In the mid-2000s NORAD started partnering with Google to track Santa. Google Earth’s partnership with NORAD was really a natural one, given the product’s intelligence agency origins. In 2004 Google purchased the CIA-funded mapping software company Keyhole. A version of that software would eventually be released to the public as Google Earth. Pure Santa synergy if I ever saw it.
With 24-hour news and blogs starving for content, the Santa Tracker program has taken on a life of its own, with its flawed origin story morphing and warping with each new re-telling. Even Gizmodo passed along the bullshit origin story back in 2008.
These days NORAD no longer partners with Google, and instead Santa opts for Bing and Microsoft products. In retaliation, Google has launched a competing Santa Tracker without NORAD that ranks higher in Google search results. The new tracker from Google doesn’t have any military escort.
But the official NORAD Santa Tracker program has actually gotten some heat in recent years over the militarization of a story aimed at children. Last year NORAD released a rather alarming video showing fighter jets escorting Santa. Even the 1970s commercials didn’t show Santa side-by-side with war machines, even if that was explicitly the message.
When asked if they were at all concerned, children’s advocacy groups like Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood said they were uncomfortable with the violent undertones of the Santa Tracker campaign.
“We really do feel strongly that it’s something that is safe and non-threatening, and not something that would negatively impact children,” a spokesman for NORAD told the AP last year. “In fact, we think that it’s a lot of fun.”
What’s the next step for militarizing Santa? It almost seems too obvious...
“Any plans for drone use by Santa?” Wolf Blitzer asked last year on CNN. Not so far, Wolf.
But the criticism hasn’t stopped the campaign. Instead, it seems this year NORAD still has the fighter jets and everything else you’d expect of the program. What’s different than the 1950s? The FAQ explains that Santa visits children all over the world including countries like Afghanistan and Israel. However, there’s not mention of Russia. Do they know it’s Christmas?
File photo of the NORAD Tracks Santa Operations Center in 2012 via Associated Press
Colonel Harry Shoup died in 2009 but I sincerely wish I had been able to interview him myself. All that we have of his account is in YouTube videos where he describes that fateful night.
Honestly, when I began researching this story around Christmas time last year, I was skeptical that there even was a misplaced phone call to the NORAD facility. The ad was just a little too on the nose. It even has a warning for kids imploring them to dial carefully.
Kiddies Be Sure and Dial The Correct Number. Really? It’s almost a little too perfect. But after finding that November 30, 1955 story about Colonel Shoup it seems likely that a call did happen.
Have I devoted way too much time exploring a fun distraction for kids during Christmas? Probably. Does the origin story for why NORAD started to track Santa really matter? In the big picture, probably not. But it seems lazy to keep regurgitating this same old story every year, especially when it’s not true. The real story might be less cute than the one about misprinted ads and hundreds of kids calling a military facility and the commander with a heart of gold who pretends to be Santa. But it’s the truth. And we should probably at least tell the true version to adults. Even if it means ruining Christmas for grown ups who prefer fairy tales.