The United States Armed Forces, for all of its serious and mission-oriented mannerisms, has always gone out of its way to keep the magic alive around Christmas time. The Marines have Gunny Claus and Toys for Tots, the Army has celebrated with fun runs and lavish feasts, and the Navy, presumably, just drinks plenty of eggnog.
Meanwhile, the men and women of NORAD, a joint effort between the United States Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force, monitor the movements of Santa Claus so all the good boys and girls can know when he’s coming.
This yearly tradition is beloved by many, but it all started because of a simple typo and a good-spirited colonel.
I mean, how else would the kids know to get a hold of Santa?
In the winter of 1955, Sears ran an advertisement in the Colorado Springs local paper encouraging people to call Santa Claus directly. The hope was that kids would call in and ask for a toy and Santa would tell them they could find it at their local Sears.
Problem was, no one ever got a hold of Santa. The number listed in the advertisement was off by one number, and it directed thousands of kids to call the extremely sensitive red phone of Col. Harry Shoup at the Combat Alert Center of NORAD.
This is what the NORAD command center has looked like ever since.
(NORAD Public Affairs, Sgt. 1st Class Gail Braym)
His number was only ever given to four-star generals and to the Pentagon. This was at the height of the Cold War, and this phone was only ever meant to ring if the Russians were expected to attack North America. And yet, it was ringing non-stop with requests for toys. He suspected that something was amiss when he received his first phone call asking, “is this Santa Claus?”
Shoup was a little annoyed and, apparently, made the child cry. Feeling guilty, he played along in hopes of getting to the bottom of what had happened. He asked the kid to put his mother on the phone, who was understandably upset at the thought of Santa making her child cry. She told him that the number was in a Sears ad. As a result, Shoup assigned lower-ranking airmen to answer the phone until he could take it down.
As troops do, they poked fun at Col. Shoup for his mistake. They placed Santa-themed decor all around the command center, just to egg him on. At the center of the room was a giant glass map that tracked all air traffic in North America, and on Christmas Eve, there was a crudely drawn Santa on his sleigh in one of the corners — just to drive the joke home further.
He asked his troops, “what is that?” They replied, “Colonel, we’re sorry. We were just making a joke. Do you want us to take that down?” In a his-heart-grew-three-sizes-that-day kind of moment, Col. Shoup smiled, walked over to the radio and said,
“This is the commander at the Combat Alert Center, and we have an unidentified flying object. Why, it looks like a sleigh.”
On the other ends of the radio, other military personnel and air traffic controllers weren’t in on the joke, but understood immediately. Because they, too, were working Christmas Eve night, they wanted in on some of the holiday spirit and continued asking for updates on Santa’s location.
The children still trying to call Santa would also be told of his whereabouts. The junior airmen would reply to the kids with a cheery, “he’s not in at the moment, he’s currently over Nebraska” or wherever Col. Shoup indicated he was.
Year after year, kids continued calling NORAD to get updates on Santa’s location and every year NORAD played along – presumably with a different phone number than the red phone on the commander’s desk. As time went on, NORAD began keeping tabs on Santa through their website and social media.