The day is almost upon us when countless children will restlessly await the arrival of a jolly heavy-set man with a long white beard and adorned in a red suit, dropping off gifts and devouring cookies and milk left behind for him–as well reading and responding to hastily-scribbled notes–probably in Crayon, expressing wishes for particular gifts.

When I was a child, Christmas was my favorite holiday. Not necessarily for the gifts, but since it was the only holiday that celebrated a man flying around. Given I was impressed with any and all things aviation, naturally I liked a guy whose job it was to fly around and drop off gifts at homes everywhere.

Although Santa’s true identity has long since been revealed, I still marvel at flight as if I were a kid. For almost 60 years running, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, has kept up a holiday tradition largely to fuel the imaginations of young people (and kids-at-heart) around the world.

In 1955, a Sears-Roebuck ad was run in a Colorado Springs newspaper. The advert was expressly directed to children, and promoted a direct telephone line to Santa himself. Only one slight problem: the telephone number was printed incorrectly, and did not connect to Santa.

Sears-Roebuck advertising the number for CONAD
Sears-Roebuck advertising the number for CONAD

Instead, by dialing the number printed on the ad, callers were ringing a red phone at the desk of a one Colonel Harry Shoup at the Continental Air Defense Command, the forerunner of NORAD. We all know red phones are the bad ones; the ones that should never ring. So you can imagine the surprise when Colonel Shoup’s secret line began ringing off the hook as children from all over the area called in, wishing to talk to Santa.

At first he thought the calls to be a prank, but Colonel Shoup quickly realized the seriousness of the situation, and did what anyone in charge of defending US airspace would do. Initially he tasked airmen to answer the calls as if they were Santa, and later gave instructions for them to provide updates for Santa’s location as he made his deliveries around the globe, an unusually light-hearted order for a facility charged with defending US airspace.

The “Santa Colonel” as he came to be known, Shoup had unwittingly started what would become an annual Christmas tradition. Every December, hundreds of NORAD airmen and civilian volunteers help offer Santa tracking services to literally millions of inquiring minds from around the world.

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