By Susie Bramhall
Photography Credits: NORAD Tracks Santa, Lt Sean Carter, Jhomil Bansil, Dennis Carlyle, Thomas Paul, Sgt. Alexandra Longfellow, photo still from video by Senior Airman Kevin Long
While shopping for some splashy summer pool items the other day, sitting next to the pool floats was an impressive display of every Christmas gift ribbon you could imagine…some with sparkles, some with polka dots, all bursting with colors of the season. Not too far away, stacks of holiday-themed toys were being snatched up by each customer who scurried by.
Yes, it’s July but Christmas has already made its grand entrance.
Not only are retailers and online stores gearing up for busiest time of year, but the team with NORAD Tracks Santa truly is full-speed ahead all year long.
I had the wonderful opportunity to chat with Lt Sean Carter, the NORAD Tracks Santa Program Manager, who let us get a behind-the-scenes peek of how the Santa Tracker made its debut, as well as all of the work that goes on year round to prepare for Santa’s journey on December 24th each year.
So let’s get into it and find out how the magic is made…
STM: Thank you for your time, Lt Sean Carter! We all want to know how NORAD Tracks Santa got its start. Can you share the story?
CARTER: NORAD Tracks Santa traces its origins back to 1955, when a young girl dialed up the director of combat operations at what is modern-day NORAD’s predecessor, Continental Air Defense command, believing she was calling to speak with Santa Claus. The phone number in a local advertisement was misprinted, and that was the difference between calling the Santa hotline and calling the desk of the combat operations director.
STM: And magic was made and continues all these years later! For such a big night, how many months lead up to December 24th?
CARTER: It’s no exaggeration to say that there is at least some form of Santa planning going on every month of the year. Things really start to ramp up around September and into October, taking full flight by November and throughout December leading up to the big day—but even afterwards, there’s room for lessons-learned meetings, compiling after-action reports to pass down to future generations of Santa trackers, brainstorming for ways to improve processes, and, of course, thanking our sponsors and volunteers, without whom the program would not be possible.
STM: How long are phone lines open on the 24th?
CARTER: The phone lines are open for 23 hours, with 10 two-hour shifts from 4 a.m. through midnight (MST). Phone lines remain open afterwards until 3 a.m. with an automated message regarding Santa’s whereabouts.
STM: How do you get your volunteers?
CARTER: Most of our volunteers are DoD personnel and their families in the local Colorado Springs area. Shifts are also allotted for civic leaders and community members. We’re always looking at possible ways to expand our pool, but we’re never lacking in support.
STM: Do you have repeat volunteers and families who participate each year?
CARTER: Absolutely—usually longstanding military and local volunteers. It’s always wonderful when family is included in the call center.
STM: What about snacks and attire…is everyone in the holiday spirit?
CARTER: Yes! As we approach December 24th, we see an influx of – not only phone line volunteers – but also food donations from local restaurants and eateries. In the week leading up to the big day, volunteers decorate the call centers to ensure the proper holiday spirit is well intact. We see a great variety of holiday attire.
STM: How many people call in?
CARTER: Last year our volunteers fielded over 53,000 calls!. At our pre-Covid peak in 2019, we had 1,480 volunteers take 150,000 calls! We’re hoping to build back up to those numbers in the near future.
STM: And these calls come in from all over the world, correct?
CARTER: We take calls from nearly every single country in the world with telephone access and international dialing. The website currently supports eight different languages.
STM: I’m sure all calls are special; however, what has been one of the most memorable calls received?
CARTER: Our team takes a lot of calls from the children of deployed service members asking if Santa will be able to visit their moms and dads—those ones are always very special to us.
STM: Is there a big screen with the tracker on it for everyone to view?
STM: What do you look forward to most on December 24th while tracking Santa?
CARTER: So this will be my first year on the team, but I can tell you I’m already looking forward to the holiday camaraderie, the buzz of excitement, and that magic feeling that surely grows and spreads throughout the day… and the milk and cookies.
STM: Of course the milk and cookies! Does Santa stop by the NORAD Tracks Santa building after delivering all of the toys?
CARTER: I can’t wait to find out!
STM: And, of course, in addition to tracking Santa, NORAD is making sure his flight around the world is a safe one.
CARTER: NORAD defends the homeland by utilizing complementary, multi-domain defensive capabilities toward the defense of Canada and the United States. These same systems help ensure Santa’s safe travels on the 24th of December each year. We are incredibly proud to continue to track threats to North America 24/7, 365 days a year, and to be celebrating 67 years of Santa tracking. We have the watch!
Now that we know more about Santa’s travels and how NORAD prepares for it’s Santa Tracking on December 24th, let’s find out a little bit more about Lt Sean Carter’s favorite traditions of the season.
Now for a few fun traditions from Lt Sean Carter
What Is Your Favorite Christmas Cookie?
My favorite Christmas cookie is actually a sandwich-style cookie with a raspberry jam filling and three hot cinnamon candies on top that my aunt makes every year—I’d share the recipe but it’s a closely guarded family secret!
What Makes Christmas Special To You?
What makes Christmas special to me are the simple things: families gathered for a holiday meal, keeping little traditions alive and passing them down to the next generation, bundling up on the couch for holiday movies, reconnecting with friends and checking in on each other—those are a few of my favorite things.
Lt Sean Carter’s Holiday Speed Round
Pumpkin Pie or Fruit Cake?
Open Presents Christmas Eve or Christmas Morning?
Why not both?
Ice Skating or Sledding?
Wrapped Gifts or Gift Bags?
We don’t discriminate!
Turkey or Ham?
Turkey for Thanksgiving, Ham for Christmas
Mashed Potatoes or Sweet Potatoes?
Mashed all day
Christmas Dinner in the Afternoon or Evening?
Late afternoon/early evening
Twinkling Lights on the Tree or Solid Lights on the Tree?
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman?
Rudolph – Frosty’s story is too tragic.
Hot Cocoa or Apple Cider?
By Christmas it’s Hot Cocoa, the months leading up to December are for Cider.
Snowball Fight or Build A Snowman?
I’m game for either but my kids usually want to build a snowman…
Caroling Door-To-Door or Stories by the Fireplace?
Stories by the fireplace!
Add this recipe to your holiday menu for Chocolate Christmas Mice (Or Anytime Mice)...a favorite yearly sweet tradition for Lt Sean Carter and his family!
1 lb Cherries, with stems
1lb HERSHEY’S Chocolate Kisses
Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips, for melting
Icing (optional) or Red-Hot Candies (optional)
1.Melt the chocolate chips in a double boiler and dip a cherry into the chocolate, holding by the stem (“tail”).
2.Set cherry on its side on waxed paper. This is the mouse’s body and tail.
3.While chocolate is still gooey, “glue” on a HERSHEY’S Kiss to the mouse’s body, with the bottom of the Kiss touching the cherry and the point part pointing out the opposite direction that the tail is pointing.
4.Add sliced almonds in the seam for ears.
5.Decorate with icing or Red-Hot candies for eyes and nose.
6.Repeat with the rest of cherries and ingredients.