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How, and why, does the U.S. military ‘track’ Santa every Christmas?

Image courtesy the A.P.

Need to Know

Every year since 1955, the North American Aerospace Defense Command – the Air Force-commanded organization charged with early detection of an airborne nuclear attack on the U.S. – has “tracked” Santa Claus’ progress on Christmas Eve. Ideally, they’re also keeping an eye out for any stray nukes as well.

As recounted by historian Michael Beschloss in The New York Times yesterday, the tradition began when a gruff colonel manning the “red phone” at CONAD (Continental Air Defense Command, now NORAD) received a call from a young child asking to speak to Santa Claus.

A local Sears Roebuck store, offering kids the chance to call Santa on his private line, had transposed two numbers in a local flyer, resulting in a flood of calls to the phone line dedicated to forestalling a nuclear attack.

It’s a story almost too good to be true; actually, it is too good to be true. The real truth behind Norad’s Santa-tracker likely involves a public relations push from the newly formed Air Force, as well as some good old fashioned Cold War propaganda.

But enough of the myth-busting – how exactly does NORAD “track” Santa’s progress? Per LiveScience, the heat signature from Rudolph’s red nose allows a radar network known as the North Warning System to follow the sleigh’s progress around the globe. “365 days a year we track possible threats to the homeland. So tracking Santa as an airborne object fits into our mission set,” Lt. Commander Bill Lewis said.

In recent years, the program has been criticized for its strange militarization of the North Pole’s operations, but the Santa Tracker shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.

You can track Santa for yourself right here.

Now go forth (and believe in the big man).

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