Why Does the American Military Track Father Christmas on Christmas Eve? - Ooh, Interesting! Fascinating Facts

December 16, 2016

If you have a child of any age then they are probably eagerly awaiting the arrival of Father Christmas on Christmas Eve. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, they can even track him using Google Maps and other such delights. What you might not realise however is that the most popular website for such an activity is actually a part of NORAD – The North American Aerospace Defense Command. How did this tradition start? Well to find out, we have to wind the clock back to 1955.

It was Christmas Eve and US Air Force Colonel Harry Shoup was still at work in Colorado Springs. He worked for CONAD, the Continental Air Defense Command, and was just looking forward to his shift being over so that he could return home for Christmas.

And then the red phone rang.

Anybody whose anybody knows that a red phone ringing is never a good sign. It’s for emergencies only, a sign that something somewhere is not going to plan and it’s time for the military to intervene. Shoup bristled. The only people who had the number to this line were the Pentagon or his superior, the grizzled CONAD Commander in Chief General Earle Partridge. No matter which of these it turned out to be, Harry Shoup knew that he was in for a tumultuous shift.

Wiping the sweat from his brow and aware that all eyes in the room were focused in his direction, Shoup answered the phone – “Yes, Sir, this is Colonel Shoup.”


He reiterated his name again and again, uncertain as to the purpose of the call. Finally there was an answer and it’s fair to say it wasn’t one that Shoup was expecting.

“Are you really Santa Claus?” A little girl asked on the other end.

A prank call! On the red phone!? Shoup would make sure that whomever was responsible for this, at Christmas of all times, would certainly have the book handed to them. Jesus, if the Pentagon were to find out about this… The Colonel turned to the men behind him, the fear in their eyes clearly indicating that this was not a prank call.

Uncertain quite how to reply, Shoup played along. It was Christmas after all. After a few pleasantries with the little girl, Shoup confirmed that he was in fact Santa Claus and that he’d only turn up to her house later than evening if she had been good this year. The girl said that she had been and noted where exactly he and his reindeer could find the food that she would be leaving out for him. After reciting her Christmas list to him, Shoup wished the girl on her way, muttering something about “some screwup on the phones”.

And then the phone rang again. And again. Shoup was fielding calls from children all over Colorado and had absolutely no idea why. Needless to say, he wasn’t getting much work done and the red phone was being taken up by kids desperate to speak to Father Christmas. Thinking on his feet and rather than let the children down, Shoup ordered a few men to begin taking the calls and ensuring that the spirit of Christmas reached far and wide throughout the state.

 It wasn’t until later that Shoup discovered the reason for taking so many calls that evening. Earlier that day, a local newspaper had printed an advert from Sears Roebuck informing them that they could phone Santa that evening. “Hey Kiddies,” the advert read, “Call me on my private phone and I will talk to you personally any time, day or night.” A cute idea for sure, but one that didn’t work as planned due to the copy being off by one digit. Instead of connecting to a Santa impersonator, who presumably had a very easy night, the children were instead phoning a top secret military emergency number. Thankfully, Shoup had played along.

From that evening on, CONAD would take calls each Christmas Eve and the tradition continued when it became part of NORAD in 1958. Not only do military volunteers sit by phones and pretend to be Father Christmas, they now have an 11 page book to help them throughout Christmas Eve. They have set questions then should ask and also various answers – no, Santa has never crashed but yes, he is very old. With technology improving year on year, children are also able to ask NORAD just how close the sleigh is to their home and can even watch Santa’s progress on the NORAD website.

If there is a more heartwarming story about Christmas then we are yet to hear it! It’s certainly nice that some government funded operations do nothing more than make children happy throughout the festive period (though others tell the origin story in a different way). As for Harry Shoup? He died in 2009 but since 1955, he had been known as the Santa Colonel, responsible for making millions of children happy across the world.



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By Henry Fosdike