For over 60 years, NORAD and its predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) have tracked Santa’s flight.
On December 24, 1948, the United States Air Force issued a communique claiming that an “early warning radar net to the north” had detected “one unidentified sleigh, powered by eight reindeer, at 14,000 feet [4,300 meters], heading 180 degrees.” The Associated Press passed this “report” along to the general public. It was the first time that the United States Armed Forces issued a statement about tracking Santa Claus’s sleigh on Christmas Eve, although it was a one-time event, not repeated over the next several years.
The program originated before the actual formation of NORAD, as an annual event on December 24, 1955. According to legend, a Sears department store placed an advertisement in a Colorado Springs, Colorado, newspaper which told children that they could place a call to Santa Claus and included the number ME 2-6681. A call allegedly came through to Colorado Springs’ Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Center as one digit was misprinted.
Shoup asked CONAD’s public relations officer, Colonel Barney Oldfield, to inform the press that CONAD was tracking Santa Claus’s sleigh. In his release to the press, Oldfield added that “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.
Today, NORAD relies on volunteers to make the program possible. Each volunteer handles about forty telephone calls per hour, and the team typically handles more than 12,000 e-mails and more than 70,000 telephone calls from more than two hundred countries and territories. Most of these contacts happen during the twenty-five hours from 2 a.m. on December 24 until 3 a.m. MST on December 25. A website called NORADSanta.org was established to allow project access for Internet users.