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Origins of NORAD Santa Tracking Tradition Through Eyes of Founder’s Daughter

CC0 / / Santa Claus
Santa Claus - Sputnik International, 1920, 02.01.2022
WASHINGTON (Sputnik) - Once upon a time, in December of 1955, when the world was anxious about Cold War turning cold, one man's imagination helped turn fears into a Christmas tradition.
US Air Force Colonel Harry Shoup was serving at the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Operations Center in Colorado Springs. Several weeks before Christmas, Shoup was on duty during what started as a quiet night shift. But everything changed when the top secret telephone on Shoup’s desk rang. The telephone could be reached only by top-ranking commanders and in very critical situations.
"Of course, with that top secret phone call, my dad was scared that, you know, there were bad Soviets…," Shoup’s daughter Terri Shoup van Keuren said.
The colonel picked up the phone and answered in a solemn tone by introducing himself. Yet instead of a superior officer, he heard the voice of a child on the other side saying, "Is this Santa?"
"Dad thought his staff was playing a joke on him and was not amused. He said sternly again: 'This is Colonel Shoup, the commander of the Combat Alert Center! Who is this?'" van Keuren said.
The colonel then heard the little boy start to cry and then ask: "Is this one of Santa’s helpers?" Shoup understood that, however improbable it was, an actual child was talking to him, honestly inquiring about Santa Claus. He quickly changed his voice to say: "Ho-ho-ho! This is not one of Santa’s helpers, this is Santa Claus! Have you been a good little boy? Have you made Santa’s list?"
The boy cheered up and shared the list of the gifts he expected from Santa Claus, but then Shoup asked the child to call his mother to the telephone.
"My dad asked her: ‘Do you know whom did your child call?’" van Keuren said. "When he described the situation, he understood that she must have been a military wife, because she realized the seriousness of the situation. She said: ‘Do you have a local newspaper in front of you? Turn it to page number…’ My dad found a big advertisement with the top secret number in it."
It turned out that the department store chain Sears had placed the advertisement inviting children to call Santa for a chat.
"Apparently, they had printed one digit of the phone number incorrectly, and it was my dad’s top secret number," van Keuren said with laughter.
Since the secret number was exposed, Shoup asked the telephone company to provide a new one. In addition, the colonel instructed his troops to answer all phone calls placed by children and to speak to them in Santa’s voice.
"Of course, these people thought the boss had gone crazy and this was a big joke, but they did as ordered. They answered the phone," van Keuren said, adding that children kept calling.
Weeks later, on Christmas Eve, the Shoups and other military families gathered at the CONAD — which is now called NORAD, or North American Aerospace Defense Command — headquarters to celebrate the holiday and bring special Christmas cookies to the troops on duty.
The colonel noticed a huge map there, where servicemen and servicewomen marked unidentified flying objects.
"They had drawn a beautiful sleigh coming over Canada, and asked my father: ‘It is an alert, sir. Do you want us to take that down?’" van Keuren said.
Instead of answering, Shoup called the local radio station and said: "We have an unidentified flying object, it looks like a sleigh," she said.
"With that, the wires went crazy, the press kept calling: ‘Where is Santa now?’ Dad’s staff answered: He is in Moscow, or in Ramstein, or somewhere else," van Keuren said.

Kindness and Magic

However, the story remained mostly unknown to the public for 25 years until 1980, when the Shoup family gathered in van Keuren’s older sister's house in Colorado. The sister called the newspapers and television stations to tell them that Col. Harry Shoup was going to celebrate the holidays there.
"They came to interview the ‘Santa Colonel’ and the story became bigger and bigger. He was a star," van Keuren said.
The  colonel's fame kept growing. When Shoups went out to lunch, they would have trouble placing order because people wanted to talk with the colonel.
"I made him little cards that had a picture of Santa and his sleigh, an American flag and a sign: "Harry W. Shoup, USAR retired Colonel, the Santa Colonel," she said.
These days, NORAD continues to track Santa Claus and has even created a special web portal so that everyone can find where the Christmas Wizard is at any moment and how many gifts he has already dropped.
Van Keuren noted that the Defense Department calls the tradition of tracing Santa Claus "the very best public relations program."
"Children call NORAD and ask - where is Santa? They have a huge computer screen with a little ‘icon’ of Santa, so they can say: ‘Santa right now is, say, in the X location and he will be at your house between 9:00 p.m. and 12:00 a.m. But you must tell your brothers and sisters, you must be in bed and asleep, or he cannot stop at your house,’" she said.
Van Keuren said she is happy that her father was the original Santa tracker, because he loved both children and Christmas. She also took a personal lesson from that story.
"Do the right things, do the kind things. We need more kindness in this world. That is what changes the world. People getting to know each other, love each other," she said.
Van Keuren also said the tradition of tracking and calling Santa shows that there is still a place for magic in our modern and pragmatic world.
"It is magic," she said. "Kids would always ask kid questions: ‘How does Santa Claus get all around the world and deliver gifts?’ My dad would put his finger up and say: ‘Oh, that is the magic of Christmas!’"

Global Fame

Van Keuren recalled that when the story became known around the world, many people began writing to NORAD to thank Col. Shoup, and NORAD would pass all the correspondence to the Shoup family.
"He had a briefcase that he could lock and carried it around with him, like it contained top secret documents. He could read it to everyone who wanted to listen. It was wonderful," she said.
A youngster from China wrote to Shoup saying his teacher said Santa Claus does not exist, but he found information about the tracking of Santa on the internet and showed her, van Keuren said.
Santa tracking helped launch another tradition — that of US Presidents or First Ladies answering the phone calls placed by children. An unidentified First Lady had once opined that Santa should not be tied to the US military, but van Keuren said one cannot take it away now and NORAD is very proud of that program.
The Shoups had drawn the attention of movie directors and received two offers that have not turned into actual movies so far, Van Keuren said, adding that the Hallmark company even wanted to turn the narrative into a love story.
"I don’t know, I am trying to figure out how to do it, because I really want the story to go off. Dad was such a character and he loved attention. So, I am going to work hard on writing the book as well, to show people that my father was a kid at heart," she said.
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