The Reason NORAD Tracks Santa Explained

NORAD, an acronym for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, was founded in 1957 with the primary function of ensuring the security of U.S. and Canadian airspace (via Britannica). Until 1991 the main threats it searched for were Soviet bombers and nuclear missiles which, considering events like the Cuban Missile Crisis that occurred five years after NORAD's founding, was an extremely important mission. In the 21st century the command still operates in its original capacity searching for intruders in North America's skies, especially given Russia's continued capacity for nuclear attack. 

There is one other target NORAD searches for that also dates back to the height of the Cold War. Unlike the Soviet threat, however, this subject of surveillance is very much still active and receives constant attention every year: Santa Claus. Both Canadian and American elements of NORAD cooperate with one another every winter to track the gift-bearing magic sleigh and the reindeer pulling it, a surveillance mission that has entertained the public for years (via NPR).

A misprinted Sears ad led to a decades-old tradition

The story of how NORAD became entangled in tracking the movements of St. Nicolas begins on the desk of Colonel Harry Shoup in 1955. Shoup was part of CONAD, an air defense command that predated and was later integrated into NORAD. According to Smithsonian Magazine, on November 30 of that year the red phone on his desk rang, which for all he knew was of extreme importance. What he didn't know was that Sears used a very similar number to that of NORAD's in an advertisement for phone calls to St. Nicholas. When the colonel picked up, the mistaken caller asked if he was Santa Claus. 

Initially believing it to be someone among his ranks interfering with national security, Shoup relaxed once he realized that the caller's inquiry was genuine, especially when their mother subsequently informed him of the ad (via Mental Floss). As this turned out to not be the only mistaken call that night, he ordered several personnel to follow suit and inform callers of "Santa's" current whereabouts, something he decided to keep doing. After 66 years, NORAD personnel not only play along with their tracking of Rudolph's glowing nose, but continue to take calls for Santa as well.