By Susie Bramhall
As the magic of the holiday season continues to sparkle and shine, one tradition continues to warm the hearts of millions around the world: the NORAD Tracks Santa (NTS) program. With the NTS website in full swing, filled with fun and games, it all leads up to the evening of December 24th, when Santa makes his annual sleigh ride to deliver presents.
But it is truly the magic of the folks at NORAD who make this journey possible, working 12 months a year to ensure Santa’s safe travels. So let’s take a step back and find out a little bit more about what NORAD does when Santa isn’t in flight and what goes on during the planning to make magic happen.
I had the pleasure to chat with Michelle Martin, Deputy Program Manager for the NTS program, who offered some wonderful insight!
STM: Thank you, Michelle for your time! Can you start by giving me a quick overview of NORAD’s mission throughout the year? And, of course, how does this help with protecting the skies for Santa on December 24?
MARTIN: NORAD’s No. 1 priority is defending the homelands of Canada and the United States through the use of many tools, including radar, satellites and NORAD jet fighters such as the CF-18, F-15, F-16, F-22 and F-35. These same systems help us monitor the skies and help ensure Santa’s safe travels on December 24. Our mission happens 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and doesn’t change … with the exception of December 24 when we have an extra mission.
Photo above by Charles Marsh
Retired Royal Canadian Air Force Gen. Tom Lawson, former Chief of Defence Staff, speaks to guests and members of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) during a celebration of the organization’s 65th anniversary at Peterson Space Force Base, Colo., May 12, 2023.
STM: That’s amazing! I’m sure Santa is very appreciative! Can you also give me a quick overview on how the NTS program started with Air Force Col. Harry Shoup receiving that one sweet phone call?
Col. Harry Shoup, the operations officer at NORAD on Dec. 24, 1955.
Photo by David Bedard, Air Force Public Affairs Agency
MARTIN: It was through an errant advertisement in a local Colorado Springs newspaper in 1955 that was the catalyst for the birth of NORAD Tracks Santa. A young girl, believing she was calling to speak with Santa Claus, had actually called the director of combat operations at NORAD’s predecessor, Continental Air Defense Command. Col. Shoup answered the first NTS call, and NORAD has answered the call for the past 68 years, both from children around the world seeking Santa’s location and the two nations the organization defends.
STM: Has NORAD Tracks Santa always had its own website, or were there different means of tracking Santa throughout the years?
MARTIN: NORAD has always tracked Santa with radars, satellites and fighter aircraft. Though the methodology of tracking has never changed over the past 68 years, the way we communicate Santa’s whereabouts is what has changed with time. From phones to television, internet and apps…who knows what the future holds as technology advances, but we will be there tracking and providing everyone the whereabouts of Jolly Old Saint Nick.
STM: So, what type of technology is used to track Santa?
MARTIN: A network of radars called the North Warning System as well as satellites and NORAD fighter aircraft are used each December 24 to track Santa.
STM: I know the website is available in many languages, how many to date?
MARTIN: Our NTS website, www.noradsanta.org, currently supports nine different languages, including Korean, which we added this year.
STM: How many companies do you work with to put this all together?
MARTIN: We have more than 50 contributors working with NTS to make this a widely successful event each holiday season, and this year is no different. From web hosting to telecommunications, T-shirts and holiday decorations, we have a host of specialties and professionals who help us make the NTS magic come to life. It seems as though planning for the next NTS begins as soon as the current one ends.
STM: And how many companies participate on the technical side of the NTS website to put this all together?
MARTIN: There are several companies, who over the years, have participated in making what NTS is today. Each has added their touch to the legacy of the program. From military and other government organizations to small and large companies, our team is vast.
Below, new hanger for the NORAD Tracks Santa Operations Center.
Photo provided courtesy of Michelle Martin
STM: It’s amazing that you get calls from all over the world on December 24! Approximately how many calls come in and how do you get them all answered?
MARTIN: We had about 261,500 calls come into the NTS call center in 2022, and one of our 950 volunteers working in the call center or 150 working virtually answered about 78,000 of those calls. Because of the volume we get each year, we also provided an up-to-date recording of Santa’s location. In addition, people can also ask OnStar and Amazon Alexa about Santa’s location.
Both Photos Below By Charles Marsh
Volunteers at the NORAD Tracks Santa Operations Center.
STM: What happens if someone calls the number before December 24?
MARTIN: Callers wanting to get an early jump on tracking Santa by calling 877-HI-NORAD (877-446-6723) will hear a message thanking them for calling, but remind them to call on December 24 to discover Santa’s whereabouts. They can also visit our website, www.noradsanta.org, beginning December 1 for more information, games and more.
STM: I know the games are a favorite for many. What goes into planning the games in the activities section?
MARTIN: A lot of our games and activities are a favorite here at NORAD! Sometimes when we get a new game sent to us, we will play it and give feedback to our contributors who design them, letting them know what might need improvement or simply that it was a blast…and can you make more?
STM: Can you elaborate about planning for the next year after the holiday season wraps up?
MARTIN: NORAD Tracks Santa is a year-round endeavor. We take a look at what things worked well, things we need to improve, and new ideas for the next year that could make for a better experience.
Photo on left by Charles Marsh
A volunteer taking calls at the NORAD Tracks Santa Operations Center.
Photo on right by Thomas Paul
1st Lt. Sean Carter, North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command Public Affairs at the NORAD Tracks Santa Operations Center.
STM: This has definitely been insightful…thank you for the behind-the-scenes information!
Now, how about getting to know some of your own holiday traditions!
STM: What is your favorite holiday tradition?
MARTIN: Making cookies with my kids!
STM: Do you have a favorite holiday recipe you make each year…can you share?
MARTIN: My famous cheesecake…it’s a secret!
STM:What is your favorite holiday movie or TV show?
STM: What is it about Christmas that makes it so magical?
MARTIN: Family and loved ones. Sometimes we get too caught up in our daily lives…Christmas always seems to slow down time and I cherish that.