In 1955, a misprint in a Sears ad that ran in a Colorado Springs newspaper accidentally encouraged kids to call Santa at the wrong phone number — a secret military hotline number that rang through on a cold-war era “red phone.” The first child’s call was answered by the Continental Air Defense Command Operations Center’s — now the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) — then-Director of Operations Colonel Harry Shoup, who heard a small boy ask, “Is this Santa Claus?” At first, Shoup thought it was a joke, but then the small voice started crying, and he realized that it was real.
Shoup talked to the boy, gave a “ho-ho-ho” and asked him if he had been a good boy. Then he asked to speak to the boy’s mother. The mother got on the phone and asked if he had seen the paper where there was a phone number to call Santa. Shoup looked it up, and sure enough, there it was — the number for his red phone — in the Sears ad.
Children started calling the hotline one after another, so Shoup assigned airmen to the phones to act like Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve, some of the airmen placed a drawing of a sleigh with eight reindeer coming over the North Pole on the big glass board that was used to track airplanes coming in over North America, which gave Shoup an idea. He called a radio station and told them that he was the commander at the Combat Alert Center, and that an unidentified flying object had been spotted that looked like a sleigh. Soon, the radio stations started calling to ask, “Where’s Santa now?”
Since that year, NORAD staff and friends have volunteered to answer e-mails and calls from curious kids.
It’s a tradition that has evolved to the NORAD Tracks Santa Web site, which is available in eight languages this year. Millions visit the site every December to track Santa on his global journey. The Internet tracker for the Big Man — dubbed “SantaCam” — began in 1998 and will go live at 2:01 a.m. EST on Christmas Eve, according to NORAD. This year’s version has added an online holiday-themed coloring book and a new image carousel of cities Santa visits. The Santa Tracker also has forayed into the realm of social media and smartphones, with accounts on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Google+ and apps available through Apple, Windows and Google Play.
Cortana, the voice-activated personal assistant for Windows 10, will keep tabs on Santa this year, so kids can ask out loud for Santa’s whereabouts, as will General Motor’s in-vehicle OnStar service.
“This year, we’ve got Bing, Cortana, Microsoft Edge, Windows Maps coming together, and again, Microsoft is partnering with NORAD to bring children and their parents a delightful experience,” says Santanu Basu, senior product manager for Bing marketing. “They’ll discover games throughout December, and then they’ll track Santa on the 24th as he’s going around the world, and discover more about those cities he’s visiting.”
As all of these moving parts need a powerful host, the Azure team stepped in to provide support and capacity on a pro-bono basis. The Azure platform provides easy handling of the exponential growth in traffic over a 48-hour period, scaling from hundreds of thousands to tens of millions of visitors.
The Microsoft Edge experience is new to the site, and gives kids opportunities to color in a maze, Christmas tree, presents, a wreath, reindeer, bells, snowflakes, snowmen and a sleigh.
“Throughout the year, we can be pretty cynical. But this is one moment where we can see things again through a child’s eyes, and it gives us a fresh sense of wonder,” says Matthew Quinlan, director of product marketing for Bing. “It brings us a new perspective. Technology has brought it right into everyone’s home.”
“On Christmas Eve, people really explore the Santa Tracker, but this site is also about the anticipation and buildup to that,” Quinlan says. “This becomes a place where families can visit on a daily basis.”
The NORAD Tracks Santa apps for iOS, Android and Windows 10 are also available, and Microsoft reports that they have all the same features and functionality as the Web experience, including the tracking starting Christmas Eve. A new open source tool called Manifoldjs allowed NORAD to leverage their Web experience to deliver apps to all the major platforms without the need to write and maintain separate apps.
Visitors to the site can explore Santa’s Village to watch movies about Santa and NORAD, listen to favorite holiday music like “Deck the Halls” and “Winter Wonderland,” and visit NORAD HQ to find out more about NORAD and its mission. The latest site redesign also adds more dynamic imagery, such as animated elves on the home page and carols playing across the Web site.
Families can learn more about St. Nick exploring the library in Santa’s Village, which is packed with information about Santa, his sleigh, holiday activities and “Operation Goodwill,” which connects the site’s fans with people in need. Another section focuses on holiday traditions around the world. When you click on any of the points on the map, it provides details specific to that country and how its culture celebrates this time of year.
Once Santa’s journey starts on December 24, kids will see hundreds of points on the home page globe that give them more details about many more cities.
“Last year, we put in links where you could see where Santa is, and then click through Bing to find out more,” Quinlan says. “We’ve updated the experience so it’s now got a carousel with some of the major cities, so it’s easier to explore, and we’ve got these richer answers in Bing.”
“NORAD started doing this because of a misprinted ad and. 60 years later, it’s become a cultural moment,” Basu says.
- Listen to the full story of how the tradition began from Col. Shoup’s own children at npr.org.
- Santa’s email address is [email protected]
- His phone number is 1-877-HI-NORAD
- NORAD Tracks Santa in 2015: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ACJJi5re5NU
- Official Facebook site: https://www.facebook.com/noradsanta/?hc_location=ufi
- Government Book Talk blog: http://go.usa.gov/c8Yrh