IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

NORAD Santa Tracker celebrates 65 years — here's how the tradition began

A phone call from a child looking to talk to Santa started a beloved tradition that will enter its 65th year on Christmas Eve.
/ Source: TODAY

Follow Santa as he makes his way around the world, bringing Christmas joy to families around the globe. Watch his journey with help from NORAD on our streaming channel TODAY ALL DAY beginning at 3 p.m. ET on Dec. 24 and going until 3 a.m. ET on Dec. 25. Parents will be able to call 660-55-SANTA to receive a special message for their kids from the big guy himself!

A tradition that will celebrate its 65th year on Christmas Eve began with a child calling a misprinted phone number from a department store's Christmas ad in the newspaper.

U.S. Air Force Col. Harry Shoup answered the phone at the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), a predecessor to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), in 1955 to a call from the child.

"He probably thought for a few moments that it may be some type of a prank call, but he quickly realized it was a young child looking for Santa," Gen. Glen VanHerck, Commander, U.S. Northern Command and NORAD, told Kerry Sanders on TODAY Thursday.

Shoup played along, assuring the caller he was the big man himself and reassuring the child that CONAD would guarantee Santa a safe journey from the North Pole. His legacy lives on after his death at 91 in 2009.

"He loved Christmas so much and loved kids, and loved stories," Shoup's daughter, Pam Farrell, said on TODAY.

"I guess the flavor of this I want to be is, do the right thing, do the kind thing," Terri Van Keuren, another one of Shoup's daughters, said on TODAY. "He could have hung up on the kid — he didn't."

Out of that one phone call, the tradition of children from across the world calling NORAD, which tracks everything in the air space over North America, to track Santa's whereabouts on Christmas Eve was born.

"We're fortunate, though, Santa does slow down for our fighters at times and allows us to escort him, but he's incredibly fast," VanHerck said.

NORAD volunteers usually receive about 130,000 calls on Christmas Eve to the hotline from children asking about Santa's whereabouts. Millions more follow along on its website and social media.

The coronavirus pandemic will not stop NORAD from tracking Kris Kringle this year, although there will be some changes.

Normally there are about 160 volunteers at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to answer phones in two-hour shifts, but this year there will only be about 10 volunteers per shift because of COVID-19 protocols. That means some children will get an update from a military member answering the phone and others will get a recording updating them on Santa's location.

"I'm 100% convinced that Santa is more than prepared to make this trip through a coronavirus environment," VanHerck said. "He's been doing this for many, many years as you know, through challenges all around the globe, so I'm confident Santa is going to make it."

In such a difficult year across the world, NORAD is hoping to bring some happiness to kids waiting for Santa to arrive.

"The hope and the joy and the love are still there," Van Keuren said. "Believe in it. Keep believing."