The NORAD Tracks Santa program is a familiar part of Christmas Eve for families worldwide. The North American Aerospace Defense Command organizes the event each year from its headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado.
In 1955, NORAD says a call came in at its predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD). When U.S. Air Force Colonel Harry Shoup picked up the phone, a child was on the line asking for Santa.
Why was a kid calling the military to get in touch with Santa? According to NORAD, it started with a newspaper advertisement from a Sears store in nearby Colorado Springs.
The department store had set up a line children could call to talk with Santa. Except the phone number printed was one digit off, sending the many calls to CONAD instead.
That’s the official version of the story today. A report from Gizmodo found an newspaper story at the time saying the call was simply a misdialed number from one child on Nov. 30. A story from the Atlantic says that call prompted a Santa-tracking public relations campaign in December.
While there are multiple versions of the events from 1955 – turning it all into a Christmas legend – the entire Santa-tracking operation is traced back to that first child’s phone call.
The program has grown over the years, with NORAD later publishing a number to call for updates on Christmas Eve. In recent years, the annual operation had more than 1,000 volunteers taking tens of thousands of phone calls.
Today, the program may be best known for it’s website, showing a location for Santa, his sleigh and reindeer moving around the globe. The Santa Tracker gets millions of visits a year, along with updates on social media and other platforms.