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They didn’t know it at the time, but on Christmas Eve in 1948, the United States Air Force started a tradition that’s become a military holiday trademark. Something that’s relied upon by millions of children across the globe — kids eager to have a certain jolly fat man in red make a visit down their chimney.

And all it took was this short bulletin:

“Early warning radar net to the north” picked up “one unidentified sleigh, powered by eight reindeer, at 14,000 feet heading 180 degrees.”

The Associated Press ran with it, and the rest is history.

Not so, however.

The missive wasn’t repeated for several years afterward — not until 1955, when something happened that, over the years, hasn’t been entirely clear.

Due to its popularity in the decades since (and as good ideas often go) its real origin story has been “modified” and clouded with legend, thanks to primarily the family of Harry Shoup: the crew commander of the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), aka the “Santa Colonel”.

Whether he earned this moniker honestly, is dicey (in his defense, he was there to guard against nuclear war, not channel the spirit of Bob Crachit).

One legend says that a child saw an ad in a Sears catalog that provided Santa’s number. When they dialed, they were one digit off, and accidentally phoned into CONAD.

Another legend, short on details and logic, says there was a red telephone set up in the control center, and that Shoup fielded calls from children himself then ordered his crew to answer others with Santa’s precise location.

The true history of the tracker’s yuletide genesis though combines, in a way, elements of both legends.

According to newspaper accounts, it took place on November 30. Not Christmas Eve.

From The Atlantic:

A child trying to dial Santa on the Sears hotline instead dialed an unlisted phone at CONAD, “by reversing two digits.” Colonel Shoup “answered much more roughly than he should—considering the season: ‘There may be a guy named Santa Claus at the North Pole, but he’s not the one I worry about coming from that direction.’”

A month later, Shoup saw that his crew drew a Santa on a control board, and it an idea was sparked (he was renowned for being a public relations whiz). The military commander asked his PR officer, Colonel Barry Oldfield, to draft the following message and release it to the public:

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.

It was an instant hit, and a new American custom was born.

***

In 1958, the duty was transferred to the North America Air Defense Command (NORAD), and while the organization no longer exists under this particular name (since the 1980s, it’s been called the North American Aerospace Defense Command) the acronym endures on the tracker’s website and beyond.

To visit the tracking in real time, click here. Not only does one receive the whereabouts of St. Nick, but they get serenaded with holiday music as performed by the U.S. Air Force Band.