The Story of NORAD Tracks Santa

From J. Brian "Bear" Lihani, author of the new book: NORAD and the Cheyenne Mountain AFS

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, commonly called NORAD, has the round-the-clock mission of defending North America from an air attack. With its sophisticated tracking and surveillance systems, NORAD can track a threat approaching the United States and Canada well before it can become a problem. Modern air defense fighters will intercept and—if necessary—destroy an enemy aircraft. Trained air defense crews are ready for any threat. But, there is one mission that NORAD loves to perform every year: tracking Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.

1. Colonel Harry Shoup was the on-duty officer who began the tradition.

During my active-duty years in NORAD, I had the pleasure of participating in one of NORAD’s most famous and fun missions. Every Christmas Eve, NORAD’s mission was to monitor the flight of Santa Claus and his gift-giving journey to billions of people around the world. As a young boy living in Pittsburgh I watched my favorite kids’ variety show where the host would provide updates from NORAD on the location of Santa. Local news stations also had “breaking news” to alert children to get ready for bed. I remember thinking how awesome it was that NORAD was providing the information on Santa’s location and how Air Force fighters were escorting him. The true story of how NORAD tracks Santa is a heartwarming and joyful one.

2. This drawing shows an Air Force Staff Sergeant monitoring the radar scope tracking Santa.

So how did a top-secret military organization like NORAD begin tracking the jolly old elf? Well, on Christmas Eve 1955, Sears Roebuck department store posted an advertisement in the local Colorado Springs newspaper for children to call a phone number and talk to Santa Claus. There was one tiny problem: the phone number connected to the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Operations Center in Colorado Springs. Colonel Harry Shoup, the on-duty officer at CONAD (NORAD’s predecessor), received numerous calls that Christmas Eve from children asking the whereabouts of Santa Claus. After several calls, Colonel Shoup realized this was an error and instructed his staff to provide Santa’s location to any children who called. This error began the yearly tradition of NORAD Tracks Santa. Celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, tracking Santa is made much easier through NORAD’s current technology of sophisticated surveillance sensors and modern US and Canadian fighter aircraft.

3. This NORAD Tracks Santa logo adorns the official NORAD Santa website.

Beginning early Christmas Eve, hundreds of volunteers answer phone calls and respond to emails from millions of children and adults from around the world. From his first stops in the islands of the South Pacific to his final deliveries on the Hawaiian Islands, NORAD watches and escorts Santa on his worldwide journey.
The NORAD Tracks Santa web site,, attracts over nine million visitors from over 200 countries during its operation. The web site, available in seven languages, has live updates on Santa’s location and projected arrival at certain parts of the world. Additionally, the increasing use of social media and the internet in general allows people to follow Santa’s journey on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and Just type @noradsanta in the search engine and anyone can have access to these sites.
The NORAD Tracks Santa mission has become a worldwide phenomenon and is often the first thing people remember when NORAD is mentioned. This magical mission has delighted several generations and will continue to be a Christmas Eve tradition thanks to a wrong number and a holiday spirited Colonel. Happy Holidays everyone!

4. Drawing of a fighter escort with Santa.

My recently released book, NORAD and Cheyenne Mountain AFS is a photographic history of NORAD and the top secret, legendary Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station granite fortress.

5. Deputy Commander of NORAD and Citadel Mall Director cut the ribbon to open the NORAD tracking station at the mall.