It all started long ago with a typo in a Sears department store ad: “Hey, Kiddies!” Santa Claus exclaimed. “Call me direct and be sure and dial the correct number.”
But the number printed in the newspaper in December 1955 had a digit wrong — and was instead the direct line into the secret military nerve center in Colorado Springs, Colo., where the Pentagon was on the lookout to prevent nuclear war. The Air Force officer and World War II fighter pilot who took the first call that day for Father Christmas thought it was a crank — and Col. Harry Shoup sternly said so.
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“The little kid started crying,” Shoup’s daughter, Terri Van Keuren, recalled in an interview. “So Dad went into his ‘Ho ho ho’ and got the kid’s list.”
Sixty-two years later, the Continental Air Defense Command is now the North American Aerospace Defense Command, and its interactive NORAD Tracks Santa has become the largest single public outreach program for the Defense Department. It’s also, you might say, the Pentagon’s most elaborate propaganda operation.
On Christmas Eve, while monitoring the heavens for North Korean missile launches or Russian military aircraft flying too close to the U.S. or Canada, NORAD will also be reporting the progress of Santa and his reindeer as they travel from the North Pole around the world delivering presents and holiday cheer. It will correlate the jolly elf’s journey with its network of 47 radar stations, spy satellites in “geosynchronous” orbit 22,300 miles above the earth, fighter jets and a suite of special high-tech “SantaCams.” Or so the publicity stunt’s plan goes.
“The moment our radar tells us that Santa has lifted off, we begin to use the same satellites that we use in providing warning of possible missile launches aimed at North America,” says NORAD’s detailed 14-page internal handbook for the operation, which is replete with Santa stats (first flight believed to be Dec. 24, 343 A.D.) and even talking points for that uncomfortable question many parents also confront: “Is there a Santa Claus?”
It’s all part of the ornamented script that more than 1,500 volunteers — including the four-star general in charge of defending North America — are using to field an anticipated 150,000 calls and an avalanche of emails and social media posts (2 million Facebook followers so far) who are all seeking to locate Ole St. Nick on his starlight odyssey.
“As soon as you’re hanging up there’s another kid wanting to talk to you,” Preston Schlachter, NORAD’s Track Santa program manager and its director of community outreach, said of the 23-hour period leading up to Christmas when volunteers work in two-hour shifts, backed up by dozens of sponsors ranging from Microsoft to the National Defense Industrial Association, Taco Bell and the local Amy’s Donuts in Colorado Springs.
In the past, VIPs like former first lady Michelle Obama have also taken a turn at the phones.
“It is the best two hours you’ll ever experience,” Schlachter added in an interview. “You are getting these calls from all over the world. One of the coolest things I like about the program is the multi-generational aspect of it. We are seeing feedback on social media, people who call in and tell us they tracked Santa when they were kids and they’ve introduced it to their kids and now they’re introducing it to their grandkids.”
The Pentagon isn’t the only agency getting into the Christmas spirit. The Department of Transportation posted an order approving Kris Kringle’s application “to engage in air transportation to various points throughout the United States on the night of December 24-25, 2017.”
“The Department finds Mr. Kris Kringle d/b/a Santa Claus fit, as well as, jolly willing, and uniquely able to engage in the interstate air transportation for which he has requested a certificate,” the order says.
The Pentagon program, however, has not been without controversy. Several years ago an animated video posted on NORAD’s website as part of the effort may have gone a little too far. It depicted Santa, his reindeer and their bursting sack of gifts escorted by fighter jets — as if they might be threatened by more than just the Grinch.
At least one child advocacy group complained that the video, which was watched hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube, was injecting a little too much militarism into a peaceful tradition, especially in light of the fact that much of the audience is made up of youngsters.
But those responsible for the program maintain that the Santa project is a central and harmless way for the American and Canadian militaries, which jointly staff NORAD, to interact with the public – and in the process educate them on the day-to-operations of the storied command that during the Cold War was housed deep inside Cheyenne Mountain to survive a potential nuclear Armageddon.
The Santa tracker “has become a magical tradition for generations of families everywhere,” Gen. Lori Robinson, commander of the U.S. Northern Command and NORAD, told POLITICO. “While certainly a reminder that we have the watch defending North America, our ultimate goal is to provide good will and cheer during the holiday season.”
She said the “cheerful energy and spirit” in the NORAD Tracks Santa operations center on Christmas Eve at Peterson Air Force Base is quite unlike anything else. “It’s an honor for my husband and me to share that spirit with the family of volunteers and the rest of the world.”
And like any well-oiled military operation the Santa mission has its own war plan of sorts — and it doesn’t miss a beat in ensuring the volunteers are well-armed to inform the public on NORAD’s wide range of capabilities.
“While in the United States, American NORAD fighter pilots in either the F-15s, F16s or F-22s get the thrill of flying with Santa and the famous Reindeer — Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen and Rudolph,” the playbook offers in outlining all the high-tech gear that is being employed. “Even though Santa flies faster than any jet fighter (Santa actually slows down for us to escort him), all of these systems together provide NORAD with a very good, continuous picture of his whereabouts.”
The “ultra-cool, high-tech, high-speed digital cameras” known as “SantaCams” are turned on especially for this mission to provide live video feeds of Santa’s journey.
But only the infrared sensors on the command’s constellation of satellites can pick up Rudolph’s nose-so-bright.
“When a rocket or missile is launched, a tremendous amount of heat is produced — enough for the satellites to see them,” volunteers are prepped. “Rudolph’s nose gives off an infrared signature similar to a missile launch. The satellites detect Rudolph’s bright red nose with no problem.”
Want to know the military specs of Santa’s sleigh? It was designed and built by K. Kringle & Elves, Inc. (contract amount apparently unknown). It is 75 cc’s long, 40 cc’s wide, and 55 cc’s high. That’s “cc” as in “candy canes.” But if you use the lollipop system NORAD has those measurements, too. As for propulsion: 9 reindeer power. Armament: antlers (“purely defensive”). Emissions? Those are “classified.”
Other select talking points, of course, are at the ready to try and answer the unanswerable. “How does he get down the chimney?”
“Although NORAD has different hypotheses and theories as to how Santa actually gets down the chimneys, we don’t have definitive information to explain the magical phenomenon.”
And the dreaded, “Is there a Santa Claus?”
“Historical data and more than 60 years of NORAD tracking information lead us to believe Santa Claus is alive and well in the hearts of people throughout the world.”
Finally, NORAD also attempts to complete an after-action report to glean lessons learned for the next time, asking those fielding calls to keep track of the diverse nations that families hail from and to record any “gems,” such a heartfelt stories or especially funny anecdotes that the organizers can fold into future public relations efforts.
Shoup, who passed away in 2009, was the most sought-after spokesman for the program for decades.
When he was still alive, “NORAD would call me and ask ‘where is the Santa Colonel going to be on Christmas Eve?'” Van Keuren, his daughter, recalled. “Everywhere he went there were reporters waiting for him. Of course he loved it.”
The family still jokes about how Shoup normally “didn’t brook any kind of childishness or foolishness,” as she put it. Except when he realized what had happened when that little kid rang his phone that Christmastime in the early Cold War when he was on the watch.
“The kid said he wanted Santa to bring something really nice for his mom,” said Van Keuren, who will once again be answering calls herself from 10 a.m. to noon Sunday MST. “So Dad said, ‘Is your mommy there? Could I speak with her?’ She got on and he said, ‘Do you have any idea who your kid called?”
In an era of tight resources, one wonders what get’s precedence? Tracking Santa Claus or the latest provocations from Kim Jong Un in North Korea?
“Well as you know, they are both no-fail missions,” says a good humored Robinson, the commander, “and I can assure you NORAD is capable of performing them both.”