Most geeks have at least a passing familiarity with the North American Aerospace Defense Command, better known as NORAD — and not just because it’s the nerve center of air defense operations for the continental United States and Canada. NORAD’s telegenic Cheyenne Mountain underground complex was the setting for both the seminal hacker flick WarGames and for Stargate Command in the various incarnations of the eponymous sci-fi TV franchise.

It’s thus amusing to think that, in some parallel fictional universe, either General Jack O’Neill or the War Operation Plan Response (WOPR) supercomputer are busily preparing for one of NORAD’s lesser known real-world duties: tracking the flight path Santa Claus. That’s right, Jolly Old St. Nick has been one of the various bogeys on NORAD’s radar since well before there was even a NORAD.

NORAD’s predecessor, the Colorado Springs Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), actually began publicly tracking the flight path of Father Christmas in 1955, three years before NORAD was formed. The tradition was handed off to NORAD in 1958, and continues even to this day, with a website, Flickr album, YouTube channel, wiki guide, Twitter stream, and Facebook page all dedicated to disseminating NORAD’s tracking data on Kris Kringle and his hypersonic flying sleigh.

Of course, the U.S. military never planned on being a public resource for Santa-centric geolocation. Uncle Sam was unexpectedly roped into the gig by an erroneous holiday promotion.


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On Dec. 24, 1955, the Sears department store in Colorado Springs, CO ran a newspaper promotion inviting kids to call Santa on a special telephone line. Unfortunately, the ad misprinted the number, and the typo — by some Christmas miracle — actually matched the direct line for the CONAD operations center.

The late Col. Harry Shoup was the command officer on duty for Christmas Eve, 1955, and when his switchboard first informed him that a child was calling asking to speak to Santa, he ordered his operator to respond with Santa’s current known location. As each subsequent typo-invited call came in, the operators continued to offer up Santa’s updated whereabouts. This act of Christmas kindness earned Shoup the nickname of “the Santa Colonel,” and earned CONAD a reputation as the place to learn Santa’s in-flight position on Christmas Eve.

The following year, CONAD maintained the tradition of disclosing Santa’s position and flight path to anyone who called. The Santa-tracking service continued when CONAD became NORAD in 1958. Today, the United States and Canadian air command staffs recruit literally thousands of volunteers (occasionally including celebrities) to answer requests for Santa’s Christmas Eve coordinates. If all the aforementioned online methods of tracking Santa Claus aren’t to your liking, you can still use the phone; just call 1-800-HI-NORAD. But be sure you enter the number correctly. Otherwise, you may inadvertently start a tradition where the Centers for Disease Control undead preparedness staff publicly track the whereabouts of the Chanukah Zombie.

That not just some cleverly coordinated call center creativity, it’s a superbly stocking-stuffing sample of seasonal Geek Trivia.

The quibble of the week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best quibble from our assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

This week’s quibble is suspended in favor of good cheer during the holiday season. If you need some further reading to tide you over, I recommend these similarly solstice-centered slices of Geek Trivia:

We’ll return you to your regularly scheduled quibble next year.