Santa and NORAD: The unholy alliance

Ho-ho-holy crap, it's that time of year again. The North American Aerospace Defense Command has gone live with its weird, kid-friendly NORAD Tracks Santa website, offering its Santa-centric obsession in seven languages.

Among goofy local holiday traditions, I've never quite understood this one. NORAD gets some cutesy publicity, I suppose, out of "tracking" a certain flying sleigh as it rockets across the world on Christmas Eve, and the TV stations get some equally cutesy graphics out of the quest. There's even a hideous video (watch it below) floating around YouTube. Kids of all ages get video feeds to follow on December 24, courtesy of NORAD's high speed "Santa Cams." But what, exactly, does Santa get out of the deal?

The tradition dates back to 1955, when some waif in Colorado Springs dialed a wrong number -- misprinted in a local newspaper ad -- and ended up talking to an officer at NORAD's predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command Operations Center. The kid demanded to know where Santa was. The officer improvised. When NORAD opened in 1958, some PR genius figured it was worth carrying on the Santa surveillance for all the widdle tykes out there, on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Fifty years later, they're still pushing the same applesauce. The program has survived NORAD's move inside Cheyenne Mountain and out again; the banning of public tours (even before 9-11) even while opening the operation to inspection by former enemies, including the Russkies; the little glitches over faulty computer chips that inspired the movie War Games and plenty of paranoid, Terminator-type conspiracy theories; and a host of other NORAD moments, many of them discussed in my 1999 overview, "No Fighting in the War Room."

The current Santa-tracking site has some intriguing speculations about how Mr. Claus manages to visit an entire world of gift-grubbing minors in one night, which NORAD figures would require a visit of no more than "two to three ten-thousandths of a second per home!" The only logical conclusion, of course, is that "Santa functions within a different time-space continuum than the rest of us do."

No doubt. But why would a time-bending superbeing consent to such crass exploitation in order to humanize our nation's nuclear-defense nerve center? Could it be that some unholy bargain was made, deep in the bowels of Cheyenne Mountain? Something like: You let us track you, Fat Man, and we won't shoot you and your laser-nosed reindeer out of the sky as suspected terrorists?

It's just a theory. But something to ponder as yet another countdown begins for the invader in a red suit. Watch the skies (and the video below)! -- Alan Prendergast

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