NORAD's Sixty-Year Pursuit of Santa Gets Weirder Every Christmas

Monday, December 21, is media day at the North American Aerospace Defense Command headquarters on Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. Giddy journalists from around the state will crowd into the media operations center, hungry for photo ops, B-roll and briefings concerning one of NORAD's most vital and enduring missions — no, not protecting the continent from nuclear strikes and other threats, but the annual tracking of Santa Claus as he makes his yuletide journey around the globe, an irresistible staple of TV holiday non-news from sea to shining sea. 

The hokey, bewildering and increasingly elaborate NORAD Tracks Santa program is as old as NORAD itself — older, in fact. It was exactly sixty years ago this month that a Sears ad in a Colorado Springs newspaper urged kids to call a local number to speak to Santa. Due to a misprint, one kid's call went through to the commander-in-chief's hotline at what was then known as the Continental Air Defense Command. The colonel who answered the phone improvised a bit with the pesky urchin, and a cutesy tradition was born. When NORAD opened in 1958, some PR genius figured it was worth issuing bulletins on Santa's progress across the skies for all the widdle tykes out there, on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Amazingly, the ritual has endured. It's outlasted the Cold War and survived NORAD's move inside Cheyenne Mountain and out again; the little glitches over faulty computer chips in the early 1980s that inspired the movie War Games and plenty of paranoid, Terminator-type conspiracy theories; the banning of public tours (even before 9/11) while opening the operation to inspection by former enemies, including the Russkies; and a host of other NORAD moments. And every year the public relations blitz has become a bit more sophisticated, with a kid-friendly website offering live updates and wretched Christmas music, mobile apps and animations, a "gift shop" hawking T-shirts and certificates, and an amazingly bloated list of sponsors, ranging from Office Depot and Verizon to the Federal Aviation Administration. 

Quite apart from the crass commercialism of it all, there's the basic weirdness of our most Strangelovian military operation allying itself with the fat man in the red suit, an international harbinger of peace and good will. The occasional touches of realism in the otherwise not-so-convincing animations — such as the opening sequence of the one presented below, which starts out like a drone strike on terrorists from Homeland but then turns into a clip about Santa flying over Kabul — only make that arrangement seem even creepier. As we celebrate six decades of unholy alliance between Santa and the Pentagon, it may be time to ask:  just what is the government really after here? Peace on earth...or our precious bodily fluids?

Behold, here's Santa's trip to Afghanistan: 

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast