The Surprising Story Behind Santa Trackers

Aerospace defense and holiday mythology may seem like an odd couple, but the North American Aerospace Defense Command would disagree. For the past 60 years, the defense agency has delighted children with their Santa Tracking system, charting the flight of the jolly old elf with the latest in technology.

Misprints and Mischief: The Origin

According to the story, the whole business started with a misprinted Sears ad directing children to call to talk to Saint Nick himself. Instead, the provided number routed to a hotline at CONAD, NORAD’s predecessor.

Harry Shoup, the Director of Operations, apparently had something of a sense of humor. He decided that, instead of creating a horde of disappointed kids, his staff should tell callers that the organization was showing the famed sled on radar. Thus was born a holiday tradition.

Toymaking and the March of Time: The Santa Tracker Today

Over the years, the operation expanded, leading to records, radio and television programming, and newspaper spots. As the Internet emerged as the new communications paradigm, NORAD embraced the change with a Santa Tracker site, which opens each year on Dec. 1.

The site features games and video programming created by NORAD and its partners. On Christmas Eve, the tracker shows the progress of everybody’s favorite fat man as he flies his mission, sometimes escorted by NORAD fighter jets. The program funds itself through corporate sponsorship and changes participants every few years.

Why the Santa Tracker Tradition Continues

NORAD’s reasons for participating in the program seem rather apparent; it provides good press to a military agency that often gets seen as simply a part of the machinery of war. Famous people work with the project as well, including Ringo Starr, Jeffrey Ross, and first lady Michelle Obama—giving NORAD a touch of glamour not often associated with radar screens and early detection.

Moreover, it offers NORAD workers a chance to take part in the holiday cheer by engaging with the community they protect, giving back, and becoming a part of holiday traditions in the process.

Lessons Learned

So, what purpose does the Santa Tracker serve? That depends on you. The Tracker is most useful to the creative instructor or parent looking for ways to incorporate fun activities with teachable moments. You can teach kids important concepts using the Tracker. Just how fast is Santa traveling? Give the kids the data, and let them calculate. Or explain how the detection technology works by teaching them about radar.

The idea has led to several other Santa Trackers popping up each year, including one from Google and another from Kringle Media.

Combining Santa and technology not only reinforces kids’ belief in the holiday legend, it also provides opportunities to teach kids in a fun way, similar to the games and activities that are incorporated into K12 curriculum. And, there are many other educational holiday activities besides Santa Trackers for your kids to try.

The Tracker may have been started by error, but its persistence as a new holiday tradition speaks to its strength as a concept. Parents looking for a way to turn holiday fun into a learning opportunity will find many chances to do so with the Santa Tracker, and in the process, practice incorporating digital and cultural channels and enrich the lives of their children.


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