Ever since the 1950s, the North American Aerospace Defense Command has kept an eye on potential threats to the United States and Canada — and, on Christmas Eve, has also monitored the activity of a red-garbed man flying through the air in a sleigh. The fact that NORAD does this is one of those traditions that seems ubiquitous to people who have grown up with it — but might seem bizarre to someone who didn’t.
Alternately: an aerospace defense system monitors the spirit of Christmas on an annual basis. This is either heartwarming or surreal, depending on how you approach it.
You’d think that there was a story behind how these nominally disparate things came to be associated. And, in a new article for History Extra, Eugene Byrne delved into the history behind it — and why it’s endured over the years and decades.
Byrne points to the version of the origin of the practice that NORAD itself lists on its website: that a 1955 advertisement accidentally printed the wrong number for Santa Claus. Instead of a department store, the number given connected people to the Continental Air Defense Command, an agency which prefigured NORAD. Rather than tell callers that they’d gotten the wrong number, CONAD provided updates on Santa Claus’s progress — and NORAD maintained the tradition upon its inception.
There’s now a dedicated website for NORAD’s Santa Tracker, along with mobile applications and a social media presence. As holiday traditions go, it’s an unlikely but enduring one.
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