Is The Origin Story For NORAD’s Santa Tracker A Cold War Lie?

Image courtesy of (Sears Holdings)

Tomorrow, newscasters across the country will share information about the whereabouts of Santa Claus, usually based on data from NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), the military entity that monitors aerospace above the United States and Canada. This Santa-tracking effort is now celebrating its 60th anniversary, and its origin story is a feel-good Cold War fib.

Since the video game “Missile Command” wouldn’t be invented for another few decades, how could NORAD predecessor CONAD explain its purpose to the public without frightening children too much? There’s one very familiar manmade object that flies well above North America once a year, during a period when news is slow and radio, TV, and newspapers have lots of time and space to fill. What if they tracked Santa’s sleigh?

According to Matt Novak over at Paleofuture, the entire idea of the Santa Tracker is a cynical PR move that used the North Pole to give the scary machinery of the Cold War a friendlier face. It did begin with a real misdialed call to CONAD, though.

This ad may actually be an after-the-fact fake.

This ad may actually be an after-the-fact fake.

The standard version of the story blames a local Sears store in Colorado, which misprinted a phone number for “Santa” in an advertisement. NORAD promotes this version, where kids trying to call Santa on Christmas Eve reached NORAD predecessor CONAD instead. A quick-thinking colonel pretended to be part of Santa’s ground team, and everyone at NORAD provided updates to kids who called all night long.

What an amazing coincidence that the misprinted number went to the one military entity in charge of monitoring objects in the sky, and not to a butcher in Denver or something! We promulgated this version a few years ago, and it’s the version that Sears promotes, too.

I think that the truth is actually better than the legend. Novak shares newspaper stories about the real original call, where a child in Colorado called up CONAD on November 30, 1955 looking for Santa. That was six days after Thanksgiving and well into the Christmas marketing season, but not Christmas Eve.

That gave the sky-watchers the idea that they could pretend to watch Santa, which would allow them to explain their function by implying that the Soviets wanted to shoot down Santa. No, really. This idea was planted in kids’ heads firmly enough that one little girl sent a worried letter asking that exact question to President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

An Associated Press story published 60 years ago today actually spells this idea out without naming the Soviet Union, but who else was near the North Pole and had missiles that could shoot down Santa?

“CONAD, Army, Navy and Marine Air Forces will continue to track and guard Santa and his sleigh on his trip to and from the U.S. against possible attack from those who do not believe in Christmas,” the story says, because there’s nothing that the godless commies want more than to destroy our favorite bourgeois capitalist holiday.

The Soviets never did shoot down Santa, and the Cold War ended. Yet NORAD is still there, scanning the skies, and they still let us all know where the sleigh full of presents is every December 24th. Share the tracker with your kids, but leave out the part about the godless commies until they’re a little older.

How the U.S. Military Turned Santa Claus Into a Cold War Icon [Paleofuture]
NORAD Tracks Santa [NORAD]

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