How The Santa Tracker Began In 1955 With A Typo That Dialed A Top Secret Military Phone Number

December 26, 2015

In 1955, a local Sears store in Colorado Springs ran a dial Santa ad. Except the number was a misprint. Instead of listing the number for Sears' Santa hotline, it posted the number to Col. Harry Shoup's secret hotline at the Continental Air Defense Command, now known as NORAD.

how the santa tracker started
Credit: CNES / Spot Image

Shoup's children, Terri Van Keuren, 65, Rick Shoup, 59, and Pam Farrell, 70, recently visited StoryCorps to talk about how the tradition began.

Terri remembers her dad had two phones on his desk, including a red one. "Only a four-star general at the Pentagon and my dad had the number," Terri said.

The red phone rang one day in December 1955, and Shoup answered it, Pam says. "And then there was a small voice that just asked, 'Is this Santa Claus?'"

Shoup was annoyed and upset by the call thinking it was a joke — but then, Terri says, the little voice started crying.

"And Dad realized that it wasn't a joke. So he talked to him, ho-ho-ho'd and asked if he had been a good boy and, 'May I talk to your mother?' And the mother got on and said, 'You haven't seen the paper yet? There's a phone number to call Santa. It's in the Sears ad.' Dad looked it up, and there it was, his red phone number. And they had children calling one after another, so he put a couple of airmen on the phones to act like Santa Claus."

how the santa tracker started by mistake
Col. Harry Shoup. Courtesy of NORAD

On Christmas Eve of 1955, Shoup walked into the command center and there was a drawing of a sleigh with eight reindeer coming over the North Pole.

"Dad said, 'What is that?' They say, 'Colonel, we're sorry. We were just making a joke. Do you want us to take that down?' Dad looked at it for a while, and next thing you know, Dad had called the radio station and had said, 'This is the commander at the Combat Alert Center, and we have an unidentified flying object. Why, it looks like a sleigh.' Well, the radio stations would call him like every hour and say, 'Where's Santa now?'" Terri said.

Later in life, Shoup received letters from all over the world thanking him for his kind act. And in his 90s, he would carry those letters around with him in a briefcase that had a lock on it like it was top-secret information," Terri said. "You know, he was an important guy, but this is the thing he's known for."

"Yeah," Rick added, "it's probably the thing he was proudest of, too."

Sources: NPR, StoryCorps. Col. Harry Shoup came to be known as the "Santa Colonel." He passed away in 2009.

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