If you want to know when Santa Claus is coming to town, ask the folks at the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD. They've been keeping track of St. Nick’s yearly Christmas Eve trek around the world since 1955.
As the famous story goes, the tradition started with a Sears ad misprint in a Colorado Springs newspaper. The ad told kids to call Santa at a number that turned out to be a secret hotline at the Continental Air Defense Command, the name for NORAD's predecessor. Col. Harry Shoup picked up.
NPR spoke to Shoup’s children last year:
The red phone rang one day in December 1955, and Shoup answered it, Pam [Farrell] says. "And then there was a small voice that just asked, 'Is this Santa Claus?' "
His children remember Shoup as straight-laced and disciplined, and he was annoyed and upset by the call and thought it was a joke — but then, Terri [Van Keuren] says, the little voice started crying.
"And Dad realized that it wasn't a joke," her sister says. "So he talked to him, ho-ho-ho'd and asked if he had been a good boy and, 'May I talk to your mother?' And the mother got on and said, 'You haven't seen the paper yet? There's a phone number to call Santa. It's in the Sears ad.' Dad looked it up, and there it was, his red-phone number. And they had children calling one after another, so he put a couple of airmen on the phones to act like Santa Claus."
In its 60th year, NORAD is expecting to field about 125,000 calls from around the world. The Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado has hundreds of volunteers, including military members and their families. There are also volunteers who speak different languages, including Spanish and French. (The number is 1-877-Hi-NORAD.)
Lt. Joe Nawrocki is fielding calls for the first time this year. What questions has he been asked so far?
“When is Santa going to come by the house? What time will he arrive? How can he move so fast and deliver so many presents? What do reindeer eat? What's his favorite type of cookies?” Nawrocki said.
NORAD's website is also streaming live videos through its Santa Cam.
“Technology is always changing,” Nawrocki said. “Part of what we do in the military and part of this program is you have to keep up with the times.”
As of this writing, NORAD expects Santa to make his Southern California rounds between 9 p.m. and midnight. So, you'd better watch out.