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How a Sears Typo Led to NORAD’s Santa Tracker

A misprinted phone number in 1955 made our childhoods more fun


If you grew up in the mid-50s, you may have been one of the first children to call a special phone number advertised as a “direct” line to St. Nick.

A delightful piece on National Public Radio just described the genesis of the tradition that evolved into the online “Santa-tracker” of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD.

“Hey, Kiddies,” a Sears Roebuck & Co. ad in a 1955 Colorado Springs newspaper read. “Call me direct … be sure and dial the correct number.”

But the ad itself, as it turned out, printed the number wrong.

Instead of “Santa,” children reached the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Operations Center in Colorado Springs. (CONAD later became NORAD.)

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Col. Harry Shoup was at his office in December when his red phone rang. It was one of two phones on his desk — the one reserved for national emergencies.

“Only a four-star general at the Pentagon and my dad had the number,” said Terri Van Keuren, one of Shoup’s three children who told the tale for StoryCorps.  

Shoup answered the call. A small voice asked, “Is this Santa Claus?” said Pamela Farrell, another of Shoup’s daughters.

A straight-laced man, Shoup was initially gruff. “He was annoyed,” Van Keuren said, because he assumed it was a joke.
 
“And so now the little voice was crying,” she said.

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Shoup rose to the occasion. He “ho-ho-ho’ed and asked if [the caller] had been a good boy,” Farrell said. The child’s mother got on the line and told Shoup about the ad. Children began calling one after another, so the colonel assigned a couple of airmen to the line to pose as Santa.
 
They then began giving their young callers updates on Santa’s whereabouts. One day, Shoup called a local radio station to report an “unidentified flying object… it looks like a sleigh!”

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From that accidental beginning, the idea of contacting Santa and later, tracking his journey, expanded. Today, the NORAD Tracks Santa website receives almost 9 million unique visitors each year from 200 countries and territories. Volunteers field more than 70,000 calls to the Santa hotline and respond to 12,000 emails.

In addition to the site, children can access the Santa-tracker on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Some things never change, though. Like the boomer generation before them, today's children continue to write hundreds of thousands of old-fashioned letters to Santa Claus each year, according to the U.S. Postal Service.
 
Do you have a favorite Santa Claus tradition in your family? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

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