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A serendipitous Santa story


Find out how a marketing mistake led to a child calling a military crisis hotline and the advent of the enormously popular ‘NORAD Tracks Santa’ website

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Picture the scene: it is December 1955. Fess Parker is number one on the music charts with ‘The Ballad of Davy Crockett’. Rosa Parks has recently been arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama and give up her seat for a white passenger, and the must-see film is Disney’s Lady and the Tramp. Tensions between the east and the west are rising with The United States carrying out 19 nuclear test explosions that year and the USSR, six. In fact, the threat of nuclear war hung over that entire decade, nowhere more so than at CONAD, the Continental Air Defense Command based in Colorado.

Legend has it that one morning in December, US Air Force Colonel Harry Shoup, the director of operations, received a phone call on one of the top-secret lines that only rang in a crisis. Shoup expected the worst as he answered the call. On the other end of the phone a tiny voice asked, “Is this Santa Claus?” Shoup was furious and demanded to know who was calling. The little voice began crying and asked, “Is this one of Santa’s elves, then?”

This was only the start. The phone kept ringing throughout the day with children wanting to speak to the jolly man in the bright red suit. Unbeknown to Shoup, the local newspaper had run a Sears Roebuck advertisement with a big picture of Father Christmas saying, “Hey, Kiddies! Call me direct…be sure and dial the correct number.” and contained a phone number to ring. Unfortunately, the phone number provided in the advertisement was off by a digit. Instead of connecting with Santa, callers were dialling in on the line that would ring if the Russians were attacking the United States.

Before long, the phone was ringing off the hook, and, getting into the festive spirit, a normally gruff Shoup grabbed a nearby officer and told him to answer the calls and, instead of pointing out the mistake, to just pretend they were Santa. Indeed, rather than having the newspaper pull the Sears ad, Shoup decided to offer the countless kids calling in something useful: information about Santa’s progress from the North Pole.

The story has it that from that point on, first CONAD and then, in 1958, when CONAD became NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), Shoup’s organisation offered annual Santa tracking as a service to the global community. A phone number was publicised and anyone was invited to call up, especially on 24 December, and find out where Santa was. Answering those phones over the years have been countless numbers of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps personnel and their families.

With the advent of the internet, the phenomenon really took off, such that Google Earth now pinpoints exactly where Santa is. ‘Video footage’ is captured showing Santa passing familiar landmarks. Today the NORAD Tracks Santa website receives approximately nine million unique visitors a year from 200 countries and territories. And, more than 1,250 Canadian and American uniformed personnel and civilians continue to volunteer their time on Christmas Eve to answer the thousands of phone calls and emails that flood in from around the world.

One cannot imagine such a scenario taking place at any time of the year other than at Christmas – how an instrument of warfare can be turned into an instrument of peace and friendship. Indeed, a similar occurrence took place in 1914 when, on Christmas day, front line troops took it upon themselves to venture into ‘no man’s land’ to have a game of football with their German opposition (legend has it that the Germans won 3-2, although it is unclear if this was due to England losing in a penalty shoot-out!).

Such endeavours are reminiscent of a part of the Bible in which the prophet Isaiah predicted a time in which “nation shall not lift up sword against nation (Isaiah 2.4)”. Instead of conflict, the nations will be at peace with one another – their swords will be beaten into plowshares. In other words, their instruments of war will become instruments of peace.

The story of the birth of Christ in a stable some two thousand years ago is well known. Not everyone believes it, and of those that do, not all believe the significance such an event has for those of us who are Christian. However, most recognise that Christmas is a time for peace; a time when we set aside our differences in order to celebrate our common humanity. It is a time in which we can learn to accept one another and to focus on our similarities rather than to dwell on our differences.

Be sure to check out the NORAD Tracks Santa website from 1 December and track his journey around the globe until 24 December.

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