NORAD Santa Tracker: Follow Saint Nick around the world

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Now in its 63rd year, the Santa tracker became a Christmas Eve tradition after a mistaken phone call to the Continental Air Defense 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 United States. When Col. 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. 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 1,500 civilian and military volunteers who will answer the phones for kids calling 1-877-HI-NORAD, it infuses the holiday with childlike wonder.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command — a joint U.S.-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 center embraced and expanded the Santa-tracking mission and has been rewarded with a bounty of goodwill and good publicity.

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. U.S. and Canadian officers do live TV interviews from the phone rooms.

Click here to see the NORAD Santa Tracker and follow Saint Nick on his trip around the world.

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Here's a look at the Christmas tradition:

HOW DOES IT WORK?

Starting at 4 a.m. MST Christmas Eve, children can call a toll-free number, 877-446-6723 (877-Hi-NORAD) or email noradtracksanta@outlook.com to ask where Santa is on his fabled journey.

Volunteers sit elbow-to-elbow in conference rooms at Peterson Air Force Base, NORAD's home, answering phones and checking computer-generated maps projected onto big screens.

Elsewhere at the Air Force base, volunteers update NORAD's website, Facebook page and Twitter feed @NoradSanta.

Volunteers work in shifts, taking the last calls at 3 a.m. MST Christmas Day.

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WHY DOES NORAD 'TRACK' SANTA?

It started in 1955 when a Colorado Springs newspaper ad invited children to call Santa Claus but accidentally listed the number for the hotline at the Continental Air Defense Command, NORAD's predecessor.

Air Force Col. Harry Shoup took a call from a child and thought he was being pranked. When he figured out he was talking to a little boy, he pretended he was Santa.

More children called, and Shoup instructed airmen to play along.

It's now a tradition, beloved by kids and the military. Volunteers range from generals and admirals to enlisted men and women, who sometimes report for telephone duty in military uniform and a Santa hat.

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WHAT IS NORAD?

The North American Aerospace Defense Command is a joint U.S.-Canada operation that defends the sky over both nations and monitors sea approaches. It's best known for its Cold War-era control room deep inside Cheyenne Mountain - now used only as a backup - and for NORAD Tracks Santa.