PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Lots of military secrets are hidden behind the gleaming walls of NORAD’S headquarters building, including this one: Just how do they get Santa’s flight path onto their computer screens every Christmas Eve?
Tracking Santa’s travels is a celebrated tradition at the North American Aerospace Command, and it unfolds Friday for the 55th year.
NORAD insiders drop hints about how they do it — “ultra-cool, high-tech, high-speed digital cameras,” radar, satellites and Canadian Forces fighter jets. They happily release a flurry of facts: They answered 74,000 phone calls and 3,500 e-mails from around the world last year, all asking for Santa’s location.
But any inquiry into the technological particulars is met with a polite rebuff and a cryptic explanation involving the magic of Christmas.
NORAD Tracks Santa, the official name of the exercise, began in 1955 when a Colorado Springs newspaper ad invited kids to talk to Santa on a hotline. The phone number had a typo, and dozens of kids wound up dialing the Continental Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, the predecessor to NORAD.
The officers on duty played along and began passing along reports on Santa’s progress. It’s now a cherished ritual at NORAD, a joint U.S.-Canada command that monitors the North American skies and seas from a control center at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.
“It’s really ingrained in the NORAD psyche and culture,” said Canadian Forces Lt. Gen. Marcel Duval, the deputy commander of NORAD, who pitches in to field French-language calls on Christmas Eve. “It’s a goodwill gesture from all of us, on our time off, to all the kids on the planet.”
It’s also one of the few modern additions to the centuries-old Santa Claus story that have stuck, said Gerry Bowler, a history professor at the University of Manitoba and the author of “Santa Claus: A Biography.”
Most embellishments never capture the public’s imagination because they tend to be ad campaigns or movies that try to “kidnap” Santa for commercial purposes, Bowler said.
NORAD, by contrast, takes an essential element of the Santa Claus story — his travels on Christmas Eve — and looks at it through a technological lens, Bower said.
“It brought Santa into the 20th century,” he said.
And into the 21st century. Santa Tracks NORAD now has a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a Youtube channel and apps for mobile phones, along with a website, www.noradsanta.org, and the phone line, 877-HI NORAD.
More than 13 million unique visitors went to the website last December. NORAD Tracks Santa had almost 530,000 “likes” on Facebook by Friday and more than 39,000 followers on Twitter.
It takes four months of planning to marshal the 1,200 volunteers, 100 telephones, 30 laptops and two big projection TV screens the exercise requires, NORAD spokeswoman Joyce Frankovis said. All the labor is volunteer. Google, Verizon, Air Canada, defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton and others chip in.
The phone line is still at the core of NORAD Tracks Santa. Volunteers answer calls in two-hour shifts from 2 a.m. Mountain Time on Christmas Eve until 3 a.m. Christmas Day.
On Friday, volunteers answered phone calls and e-mails from two conference rooms in a building not far from NORAD’s headquarters. In a separate room, a three-member team fired out tweets and Facebook updates, checking against a schedule marked with a secrecy warning that said “Santa’s Eye Only.”
Civilian and military staff wore blue Santa hats with “Special Operations Elf” written on the white trim.
“It is tremendously fun,” said Jim Jenista, NORAD’s deputy chief for joint training exercises who has volunteered to answer the phones for nearly a decade.
Sometimes the line is silent until a parent’s voice encourages a shy child to speak up, Jenista said.
“Or sometimes they’ll put us on speaker phone. Sometimes it’s an overnight and all the cousins are there. They get so excited,” he said.
The phone volunteers don’t get specific about Santa’s ETA, Jenista said, but they do encourage kids to get to bed soon.
“We get e-mails from parents thanking us,” said Mike Wilkerson, a network engineer responsible for setting up the phones and computers and keeping them running.
Occasionally an e-mail or phone call pleads for help. A girl from Australia wrote Friday to ask if Santa could help doctors cure her younger brother’s cancer, adding that she feared he might not live until next Christmas.
Those requests are handled “with as much hope and optimism as we can,” said Jamie Graybeal, NORAD’s deputy chief of staff for communications. “We promise to pass on these e-mails to Santa.”
NORAD’s brass, including Duval and the commander, U.S. Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., were scheduled to do 31 broadcast interviews, most of them on TV, in a 9-hour stretch Friday. During one, Winnefeld moved easily from discussing Santa to discussing terrorism and back to Santa again. He ended the interview with a gentle admonishment: “Have a great Christmas and go to bed on time, because Santa only visits houses where kids are sleeping.”
Duval is careful to say that tracking Santa doesn’t interfere with NORAD’s other job, watching out for enemy threats to the North American continent.
And neither he nor others think it’s out of character for one of the world’s most technologically sophisticated military commands to make time and space available for a venerable folk hero.
“It’s a magic season,” said Bowler, the Santa historian. “It makes people silly, it makes people childlike, which is wonderful.”