The tradition started in 1955 with a Sears newspaper ad that encouraged kids to call Santa — at the wrong number. Those who who dialed St. Nick at the time ended up reaching the operations center for NORAD’s predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command.
U.S. Air Force Col. Harry Shoup, who came to be known as the “Santa Colonel,” was on duty that night and told his operators to report Father Christmas’s location to every child who called. NORAD has carried on the tradition since it’s founding three years later.
In modern times, the tracking is done by “satellite systems, high-powered radars and jet fighters,” according to NORAD. The announcements are made on the NORAD Web site and through social media. Here’s an example from Twitter in 2013:
The big guy is in Juneau, Alaska, United States— NORAD Tracks Santa (@NoradSanta) December 25, 2013
This year, the NORAD Tracks Santa Web site features an elf-naming contest, a holiday countdown clock and various games. The site is available in eight languages.
Visitors to the site can watch Kris Kringle make preparations for his flight starting at 12:01 a.m. EST on Dec. 24. Trackers worldwide can inquire about his whereabouts with live telephone operators beginning at 6 a.m. EST by dialing 1-877-HI-NORAD, or via e-mail at email@example.com.
To make the operation work, thousands of volunteers staff telephones and computers to answer calls and e-mails from children and adults. The Web site receives about 9 million unique visitors each year from more than 200 countries and territories, and the volunteers take about 12,000 e-mails and 70,000 calls, according to NORAD.