The US government may be partially shut down, but that won’t stop hundreds of volunteers dressed in Christmas hats and military uniforms from taking calls from children across the world who want to know when Santa will be coming.
The military says the NORAD Tracks Santa won’t be affected by the government shutdown because it is run by volunteers at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado and is funded by the Department of Defence budget that was approved earlier this year.
Now in its 63rd year, the Santa tracker became a Christmas Eve tradition after a mistaken phone call to the Continental Air Defence Command in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1955.
CONAD, as it was known, had the serious job of monitoring a far-flung radar network for any sign of a nuclear attack on the US.
When Colonel Harry Shoup picked up the phone that day, he found himself talking not to a military general, but to a child who wanted to speak to Santa Claus.
A Colorado Springs newspaper had run an ad inviting kids to call Santa but mistakenly listed the hotline number.
Colonel Shoup figured out what had happened and played along. The tradition has since mushroomed into an elaborate operation that attracts tens of thousands of calls every year.
For the 1500 civilian and military volunteers who will answer the phones for kids calling 1-877-HI-NORAD, it infuses the holiday with childlike wonder.
“They’re all really sweet, small voices,” said Madison Hill, a volunteer who helped answer the phones in two previous years.
The North American Aerospace Defence Command – a joint US-Canadian operation based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that protects the skies over both countries – has taken over the Santa tracker since the tradition started.
The military command centre embraced and expanded the Santa-tracking mission and has been rewarded with a bounty of goodwill and good publicity.
In the event of a government shutdown, NORAD will continue with its 63-year tradition of NORAD Tracks Santa on Dec. 24. Military personnel who conduct NORAD Tracks Santa are supported by approximately 1,500 volunteers who make the program possible each and every year. pic.twitter.com/fY0oyjrdDc
— NORAD & USNORTHCOM (@Norad_Northcom) December 21, 2018
Last year, NORAD Tracks Santa drew 126,000 phone calls, 18 million website hits, 1.8 million followers on Facebook and 179,000 more on Twitter.
It takes 160 phones to handle the calls that pour in. New volunteers get a playbook that briefs them on the questions kids might ask. Big screens on the walls show a Santa icon making blistering progress around the globe. US and Canadian officers do live TV interviews from the phone rooms.
“It really gets you into the Christmas spirit,” said Hill, a student at Mississippi State University who got involved through Air Force family members stationed in Colorado Springs.
One year, she took a call from a boy who began reading a very long Christmas list. “I remember having to cut him off after the 10th present or so,” she said, explaining to him that she had to take calls from other children.
Sometimes the volunteers have to handle the unexpected. In 2012, a child from Newtown, Connecticut, asked if Santa could bring extra toys for families who had lost children in the mass shooting that year at Sandy Hook Elementary.