There once was a time when Santa Claus could, like Batman, use the dark of night to disguise his comings and goings. This had its advantages, not the least of which was keeping little children guessing when the old guy would actually show up.
Those days are long gone. This year, NORAD and various helpers are once again tracking the Bearded One through airspace with radar, satellite and Santa cams, and children the world over will use their family tablets, laptops, smartphones, connected TVs and video consoles to keep tabs.
According to all news reports, instead of being discouraged by such watchful electronic eyes, Claus is as full of good cheer as ever. One curious transition, however, is seldom noted. Since the end of the Cold War and a significant drop in the risk of, say, incoming missiles, tracking Santa Claus has become NORAD's most famous annual endeavor.
Over Half a Century
Santa and NORAD have been partners in the most famous nighttime delivery service in the world for more than half a century. It all began with a well-intentioned but erroneous phone listing in 1955.
At that time, a Colorado Springs newspaper ran a Sears Roebuck ad that encouraged children to call Santa but printed the wrong phone number -- the operations hotline for the CONAD Commander-in-Chief. In 1958, CONAD became the North American Aerospace Defense Command or NORAD.
When the movie is made, you might see a young Colonel Harry Shoup, Director of Operations, picking up the phone to answer the first phone call resulting from that error, as his voice-over says the words he later told news media.
"I will never forget it," he says. "The Red Phone rang, and it was either the Pentagon calling or the four-star general." It was neither. Instead, it was a child asking if Shoup was actually Santa.
Since tracking all foreign incoming air traffic was central to his job description, Shoup decided to ask his staff to check radar screens for signs of a sleigh and reindeer, no wings. To the surprise of no one except perhaps any eavesdropping Soviets, the NORAD staff started providing updates on Santa's moving location.
Bing, Not Google
Shoup died in 2009 after being known for years as the Santa Colonel, and NORAD has continued the task of making sure the world's most famous animal-powered vehicle doesn't hit any friendly aircraft.
Santa may not change, but this annual tracking ritual does. This year, for instance, NORAD's Track Santa page at www.noradsanta.org will use Microsoft's Bing Maps to follow St. Nicholas in 2D space and Cesium for 3D. The site, which utilizes Microsoft's Azure platform, also offers multi-platform tracker apps, animated games, computer generated videos of Santa's expected trip, and a video tour of the tracking facilities, the NORAD Track Santa Operations Center.
The Track Santa Center, known on less important days as the Leadership Development Center at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, opens early on Christmas Eve morning. It invites inquiries by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or, for a live operator, by phone at 1-877-HI-NORAD.
This year's arrangement with Microsoft replaces Google's tracking collaboration in years past, for reasons that adults can only surmise. Norad has said that it and Google have "mutually agreed to go in new directions."
19 Million Visitors Last Year
To its credit, Google has avoided the urge to sulk and instead expanded its own Santa Tracker site, at 'google.com/santatracker/, which offers various apps for Google+, Android, the Chrome browser and Google Earth, as well as Santa-themed games and an online chat with Mr. Kringle.
With the thoroughness one hopes NORAD is using for its other missions, the agency has said that, on the big night, Arctic experts will monitor ice floes and shipping lanes near the North Pole and meteorologists will relay weather information. Satellite operators will use the infrared beacon on the sleigh, otherwise known as Rudolph's nose, and radar stations in Canada, Alaska and on Aegis cruisers will track Claus' whereabouts.
The annual effort now has a massive audience that ensures Santa will never again fly undetected. Last year, for instance, the NORAD Tracks Santa Web site scored nearly 19 million visitors from 220 countries and territories, more than a million Facebook users became fans, and, on Christmas Eve, 1200 volunteers took 102,000 phone calls and answered 8,000 emails. Some of the calls, NORAD said, are from children wanting to make sure Santa will visit their military parents stationed overseas.
This year promises to beat those marks, with the apps having been downloaded 1.6 million times so far and the Twitter feed having over 95,000 followers.