Once upon a time in 1955, Captain Jennifer Stadnyk from NORAD Tracks Santa explained, a Sears department store in the United States put an ad in a local paper telling children they could call Santa at a phone number included in the advertisement.
“The phone number they put was actually misprinted and it went to the operation centre for what was then known as the Continental Air Defense Command. The colonel on duty answered the phone and there was a child,” noted Stadnyk, adding the child asked the colonel if he was Santa.
Stadnyk said the colonel told the child where Santa was and told other officers on duty that night to do the same when children started calling in. “It started a tradition. We’ve been doing it for 59 years now. Every Christmas Eve we’ve been tracking Santa.”
NORAD or the North American Aerospace Defense Command is located at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado.
Last year, according to Stadnyk, NORAD Tracks Santa had approximately 1,250 volunteers to make the Christmas magic happen.
“They ranged from military personnel – Canadian and American, civilian employees, friends, family and people in the local Colorado Springs community. They worked two-hour shifts and they manned the phones and the computers for 23 hours,” she said.
NORAD starts tracking the jolly old elf at 6 a.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST) on Dec. 24 and the tracking is complete between 1-2 a.m. (EST) on Dec. 25 depending on when Santa is done delivering presents to kids around the world.
This year marks the second year Stadnyk has been an active part of the NORAD Tracks Santa team. She said there are so many ways kids can track Santa this year including the official website and social media platforms Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and YouTube plus another neat way to track Mr. Claus.
“If you have a car with an OnStar button you can press the OnStar button in your car and ask the operator to locate Santa for you,” added Stadnyk.
Of course, Stadnyk said, there’s the good old fashioned operations centre, which is set up so kids can call 1-877-HI-NORAD to talk to an operator to find out Santa’s location. Kids can also use Skype to call too. Or kids can send an e-mail to email@example.com and operators will respond to e-mails to tell kids where Santa is.
May, Stadnyk said, is usually when preparations begin for the annual NORAD Tracks Santa initiative.
“The entire NORAD Tracks Santa program is completely a result of volunteers and military and corporate partners. We don’t actually spend a budget on this program.”
For an example, Stadnyk noted, the website was designed and created by Microsoft and a company developed the games kids can play online and another company developed the mobile apps.
“They do all that out of their own time for the program, which is great. We start to co-ordinate all that back in May,” she said, adding during the weeks leading up to the big night the operations centre gets decorated and phones get hooked up and ready for Dec. 24.
“It’s a lot of fun doing the decorating but showing up on Dec. 24 is when the real buzz happens — when you walk in and all the volunteers are there and they’re wearing their Santa hats and everything like that and we have Christmas treats on the tables and Christmas music playing. A lot of people consider doing this on Dec. 24 as their kick-off for the holiday season. You can really feel the spirit of Christmas,” said Stadnyk.