The fascinating story of the wrong call that created in the middle of the Cold War a system to follow the route of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve

Desde la década de los años 50 se viene utilizando el rastreador de Papá Noel. Fotografía: BBC.

The Santa Claus tracker has been in use since the 1950s. Photograph: BBC.

And it has served for everything: advertising campaigns, decorations, athletic races. Even a town has declared itself the home of Santa Claus and it’s basically Christmas all year long.

In many countries, children look for him in shopping malls to ask for a photo, they write letters to bring them gifts.

And on Christmas Eve there are even those who —not only minors, also adults— follow their journey through the internetthrough the houses of the five continents while delivering them.

It is a tradition that has its origin 60 years ago, in the middle of the Cold War, by a wrong call to a US military command.

“This story made the North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad, by its acronym in English) decide to use its radar system to follow the trail of Santa Claus during his intense journey on Christmas Eve,” Lieutenant Sable L Brown, Norad spokesperson.

“Currently there is a team of 200 volunteers who every year receive calls from thousands of children They ask us where Santa Claus is and if they can communicate with him ”, adds Brown.

But in reality, it all started with an ad in the newspaper.

Cold war and santa claus

November 1955 was ending and the world feared the possibility that the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union would lead to a nuclear conflict that would devastate the planet.

The governments of the United States and Canada had installed a radar system in order to detect a possible nuclear attack from the USSR through the North Pole.

One of the bases of that system was located in the city of Cincinnati, in the state of Ohio. During the night of November 30 of that year, Colonel Harry W. Shoup answered the following call:


“Am I talking to Santa Claus?”

It was a child who asked. Colonel Shoup went cold.

That phone was supposed to only be for communications strictly related to military affairs, such as, for example, an imminent nuclear attack on the country.

“The colonel understood the situation, but wanted to know how the boy had gotten that phone number. And it turned out it had to do with an ad that had been in the newspaper, ”Brown explained.

Santa Tracker

Getty Images
The Santa Claus tracker is one of the pages visited during the Christmas vigil.

The point is that a local store, famous among other things for its Christmas advertising campaigns, had published an ad that included a phone number to which children could call to speak with Santa claus.

But a minor made a mistake when marking it – not once, but twice, says journalist Matt Novak in the specialized media Gizmodo-. One of those calls was the one the colonel answered.

Shoup gently explained to the boy that he was not Santa Claus and that he had not called the North Pole, and as he did so he realized that he was facing an opportunity.

“After the experience, Shoup gave the idea to the public relations team of the military command that in addition to protecting the United States from a nuclear attack thanks to its radars, they could also say that they did the same with the adorable Santa Claus “, explica Novak.

What they did was, the following year, publish a press release in which they reported that they were going to trace the passage of Santa Claus through the US that December to protect him from possible attacks by those “who did not believe in Christmas.”

Thus was born Santa Tracker or Santa Claus tracker.

How does it work

In 1955, it was two years before the Soviets launched Sputnik into space and decades before satellites began to be used with space geolocation technology, so the tracking process was simulated with radars installed to detect interoceanic missiles.

“At first we reported on the radio and in the press how Santa had passed through the US, but later we opened a call center and little by little it grew in popularity, “explains Brown.

Experts agree that the Santa Tracker became one of the best strategies for marketing in the history of the US military.

Especially after the advent of satellites, GPS, and the internet, which is basically how it works now.

During Christmas Eve part of the US defense system follows the path of two planes that “watch over” the passage of the generous old man dressed in red across the globe.

Santa Trakcer

Getty Images
Thousands of children follow Santa’s tracker online.

In fact, systems like Amazon’s Alexa use Norad’s Santa tracker to report the information in their database.

“In addition to following the pace of Santa Claus, with the number of gifts that he is delivering minute by minute, through the portal, we also answer children’s calls and answer their emails,” reports the captain.

Children often ask for the location of Santa Claus, but they also usually want to contact him directly or they ask if they can ask for one more gift.

“Before the pandemic we worked with 1,500 volunteers who told the children that the Norad communicates with Santa’s sleigh through infrared light that hits the nose of Rudolph the reindeer (to which a famous Christmas song is dedicated) ”Explains Brown.

And he reflects on how working during the pandemic made him value this service even more.

“I realized that the illusion that not only many children but also adults think about the arrival of Santa Claus is one of the few beautiful things that happened to them during these difficult months. So that has been very satisfying. “

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