Tracking Santa with help from NORAD, Google

Video: The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is tracking Santa's progress around the world this Christmas Eve.

Those looking to get the timing just right for setting out the milk and cookies have a few tools to make sure everything is ship-shape when Santa makes his way down your chimney. Continuing multiyear traditions, both Google and NORAD have launched their Santa trackers so that parents can answer that persistent question from their kids on Christmas Eve — “Where’s Santa?”

Google used to partner with NORAD on the tracker, but the two parted ways last year, saying they had different visions for how the program would work. NORAD now works with Microsoft, but Google has continued its own version of the Santa Tracker using Google Maps. Courtesy of Google’s virtual Santa village, kids and parents can play games, chat with Santa to leave personalized voicemail messages and learn about Christmas traditions around the world. Google will also let parents track Santa with a Chrome plug-in, Android app and, if you want to go big-screen, an app for the Chromecast.

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Of course, traditionalists may also want to check out NORAD’s Santa Tracker program, which has been running for over 50 years. Last year, the program attracted over 22 million unique visitors to its site, as the Associated Press reported.

This year the site is available in English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese and Chinese.

The story behind the NORAD Santa tracker is so sweet that you’d think it came straight out of a movie. The tradition started in 1955, when a Sears Roebuck ad misprinted the number of its Santa hotline and instead printed the number of the operations hotline for the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD). Col. Harry Shoup, the director of operations at that time, decided to play along and directed his staff to look for the jolly old elf on the radar screen. That organization eventually became NORAD, which took up the tradition in 1958.

NORAD is partnering with Microsoft and its Bing maps for the Santa Tracker for the second year, and also offers games, movies, music and history on its storied tradition. (The sponsorship also means that the program doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime.) The program has run into a bit of a kerfuffle this year because some objection to one of its annual traditions — giving Santa an unarmed jet escort — made headlines earlier this month. As the Associated Press reported, the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood objected to the inclusion of fighter jets in the story. U.S. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a spokesman for NORAD, told the AP that he understands the criticism but disagrees that it promotes violence.

Parents and kids interested in following Santa on his flight through NORAD can check on him via the NORAD apps on the Apple, Google and Microsoft app stores and send an e-mail to noradtrassanta@outlook.com. You can also follow Santa’s progress on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google+. OnStar subscribers can also check in on Santa’s location on Dec. 24. Or for a more personal touch, you can call one of thousands of volunteers who operate the phones at NORAD’s call centers each year at 1-877-HI-NORAD (1-877-446-6723) for updates, starting at 6 a.m., Eastern on Dec. 24.

Tracking Santa is far from an exact science, but NORAD estimates that he’s usually overhead between 9 p.m. and midnight local time — about the time the youngest members of the household are in bed. The organization says that the jolly old elf normally starts in the South Pacific at the International Date Line, and then makes his way up to Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and South America. Weather, of course, can affect his flight plan.

Parents should note that in the past, however, Santa’s magical field has created disruptions on some of the equipment and the two trackers haven’t matched up exactly. So those looking for consistency should probably stick to one or the other, to avoid confusion.

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