NORAD Maps the Flight of Santa’s Sleigh

Where is Santa Claus?  The question is perhaps preposterous; Santa is imaginary, after all.  But every Christmas Eve for over fifty-fie years, the North American Aerospace Command–NORAD–has invited viewers to track the gift-laden sleigh of Santa crossing the night-time sky at the speed of starlight on NORAD’s Santa Tracker, an annual collective exercise in mapping of increasing popularity–indeed the mind-boggling proportions of its popularity, attracting upwards of 20 million individual users in 2011 alone, is a statement not only to its improved UX, but to the versatility of its incorporation of mapping servers better to imagine the itinerary of Santa’s airborne sleigh.  For while we once envisioned the night-time flight of Santa Claus far-off and against a starlit sky and full moon, to accentuate the surprise of a magical itinerary–




–the Santa Map brings that journey up-close for everyone before a computer monitor, following a sort of sleigh space that is the surrogate for airspace.  The remapping of Santa’s itinerary has been done in a way that tracked, as the sleigh’s global progress is intercepted and relayed online in real time from posts of remote observation to viewers around the world.  And in an age of global surveillance, there seems to be no reason why Santa’s sleigh cannot as well be surveilled for the interests of children everywhere.

There’s a huge appeal in the ways that the Santa Map creates and imagined community, as much as it embodies an annual itinerary.  The interest in tracking Santa’s sleigh has grown considerably in recent Christmas Eves.  The huge interest in tracking Santa’s sleigh–and effectively mapping the visits of the airborne sleigh into our hearth–is a way of bringing maps in line with pleasure at a time when we need to look for solace where we can find it, and where we can find a comfort that the onslaught of most maps of contemporary events in fact rarely provide.  Christmas has been a communal but solitary experience–located in the hearth and around the tree, and gift-opening a ritual of individual families–but somewhat serendipitously, the collective witnessing of the Santa Map offers a vicariously removed experience for crowds of viewers, removed from one another but creating the illusion of comprehensively witnessing the arrival of a fictional character to homes everywhere, as if to knit us together in holiday wonder, suspended for the evening in an imaginary international airspace of momentary world peace.  In recent years, but perhaps since the Cold War, this particular image of good cheer provides the odd inversion of the danger of the military missile strikes, if not offering the miracle of suspending fears of missile strikes, or the contradictions implicit in imagining peace in a world that lies on the brink of global war by using the very tools to chart missile defense systems as instruments of good cheer.

The interactive map is a new way to conceive the itinerary of gift giving Santa Claus uses to deposit gifts in every chimney and hearth, giving a virtual presence to the fictional Father Christmas making his annual voyage of gifts for children from the North Pole.  And at a time when drones gained popularity as holiday gift–some 1.2 million drones were sold during in the 2016 Christmas season, according to the Consumer Technology Association, often to novice pilots–their popularity reflects the prominence of drones in mainstream America’s spatial imaginary.  The many drones lost and found drones over Christmas week for two years suggest the appeal of remotely guided aeronautics, in which mapping the course of Santa’s sleigh by a drone not only enhances the UX of Santa Maps, but lends materiality to the wondrous arrival of Santa’s sleigh.  The amplified user experience offered on the website provides views akin to virtual drone, by which viewers can observe the expected arrival of Santa Claus as if from an unmanned object beside Santa’s path.


Leaving th eNOrth POle.pngSanta Leaves North Pole on YouTube (2010)


tracking-santaSanta Trackers in Colorado


Santa to Wash.pngViewing Santa arrive in Washington, DC


Santa Maps invite viewers by web-based technologies to  map of the sleigh’s route in two- or three-dimensions, or chose an option of receiving regular updates on the progress of gift-giving on a global scale all night long.  The curiously intangible map sustains the questionable fiction of Santa’s arrival to each household from the North Pole:  and if all maps stand at a remove from the world, the Santa Tracker seems to stand at a particularly odd angle to the world–especially in a period where the number of international borders defined by physical obstructions and apparatuses of surveillance have grown 48% since 2014, and border-crossing has become an increasingly politicized and even a desperate act for refugees or those without economical opportunity.  The increasing popularity of Santa Trackers provide an upbeat narrative all the more needed in a time of global dissensus–at no cost to tax-payers, with the tracking map, and telecom services donated by sponsors.

But if the Santa Tracker seems something of a a metaphor for globalism it keeps up with the pace of the naturalization of the authority of map providers:  for the speed of mapping real-time motion, and indeed of tracking fast-flying objects, as the sleigh that moves at the speed of starlight, is in a sense the other side of the project of mapping Santa’s sleigh:  the instantaneous transmission of the path of Santa’s arrival is as much the promise of the Santa Map as the tracing of the path that Santa’s sleigh takes.  While once the promise of protecting the course of Santa’s sleigh on its way to deliver gifts became the job of NORAD, and the arrival of gifts the proof of NORAD’s authority and power in the hemisphere, the mappability of the rapid course of Santa’s sleigh is as much the promise of remote tracking of the atmospheric gasses, weather patterns, icy air streams and wind-currents by orbiting satellites:  we are promised to be able to follow the speed by which Santa condenses the project of visiting every hearth world wide on one night, as if to capture that night’s magic, as if from cameras stationed directly over or behind his Sleigh.



To be sure, NORAD’s monitoring of the flight of Santa’s sleigh historically paralleled the expansion of the monitoring of the northern frontier of the United States, a particular preoccupation from the Second World War of United States military who feared the possibility of an undetected trans-polar Russian invasion.  And so the ubiquity of mapping tools began in military agencies of border-protection:  what began as a US-Canadian project of military cooperation in the Cold War, the Santa Map has gained new life with the growth of persuasive mapping of from satellites and flyover maps, and led to the expansion of the Santa Tracker–what could be more benevolent than to map the arrival of the annual giving of gifts, under the pretense of offering safe passage to the over-laden Sleigh as it crossed international bounds?

Even as the growth of the interface possibilities on the Santa Tracker maps onto the diffusion of interactive maps the land-bound can navigate by search engines, there is something oddly sacrosanct in such monitoring, a bit analogous to the Holy Father and Cardinals watching soccer matches on television.  But the Santa Map also attracts a huge audience in an age when we assume everyone is monitored, in the system and online, by the promise of capturing the magic of real-time mapping of something as magical but intensely expected as Santa’s sleigh.  The spectacle of online mapping provides a collective ritual of tracking the magical arrival of Santa through the night, and a celebration of the ability of mapping even something moving so speedily through our skies–as if in testimony to the ability to track any missile that might be pointed against us from North Korea, whose testing of multi-stage rocket has increasingly put America on edge, as has its current promise to and the recently voiced fears of North American Aerospace Defense Command‘s Admiral Bill Gortney that it is only prudent to assume Kim Jong Un now “has the capability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and put it on an ICBM” able to hit American soil–even if the rockets that they have fired seem to have travelled only far smaller trajectories, and prototypes were based on SCUD’s.






The monitoring of Santa’s flight is now a sort of proxy for the detection of ballistic missiles, and a promise of the continued monitoring of our northern skies.  But the assurance that they give of Santa’s voyage like in the map NORAD provides–as much as the guarantee of Santa Claus’ physical protection.   When NORAD’s new Public Affairs Deputy, Major Jamie Robertson, Canadian Forces, put the Santa Tracker online in 1997, he saw the benefits of putting the Santa Tracking Program on the World Wide Web as an opportunity for NORAD to use“state of the art” technology:  with the help of Analytical Graphics, Inc., Robertson helped expand the online presence of NORAD Tracks Santa, with the help of corporate donations, but the intense consultation of the online Santa Map on one day–December 24–overloaded an unprepared system with 20 million website hits, at a speed of 30,000 website hits a minute; in 1998, the website went on to receive over 80 million hits, as the novelty of on-line tracking of Santa was widely reported, leading the site to be hosted by AOL.

By 2002, the much praised website approached 300 million hits, even as the nation’s military was placed on orange alert after threats of Al Qaeda attacks:  “If we stop doing what we planned to do, then the terrorists win,” NORAD spokesperson Michael Perini summarized the agency’s line:  “The children of the world deserve to have Santa tracked. We feel that doing that and getting Santa safely around the world also hopefully reminds people that it’s safe to fly.” In coming years, NORAD promised an even more satisfying user experience, and introduced webcams to allow viewers to track Santa above 24 global regions, following the glow of Rudolph’s nose by satellite.  The Cold War origins of the Santa Tracker continued, and from 1997-2005, Canadian NORAD Region provided Santa’s sleigh with Air Force fighters (CF-18 Hornets) as a military escort.


Canada Jets and Santa.pngCanadian NORAD Region

The expansion of Santa on social media expanded as the interface with map servers grew.  By 2003, NORAD’s tracking of Santa Claus would receive 912 million hits from over 180 different countries, providing the impetus to adopt new mapping engines like Microsoft’s Virtual Earth in 2005, and allowing kids to send emails to Santa as well, leading NORAD public affairs to be pressed to search for volunteers by 2006 to respond to an overflow of emails as well as to respond to half a million telephone calls to keep holiday cheer alive.  When Google and Booz Allen Hamilton replaced AOL as the service’s sponsor in 2007, they provided a Web 2.0 level of interactivity that first allowed viewers to track Santa in 3-D, in a service that received 10.6 million visitors from over 200 countries and territories–a number that by 2015, jumped to 22 million unique visitors and over 70 million page views.

The rapid growth of the witnessing of Santa’s flight of course entered into a bit of a competition of calendrical milestones reminiscent of the Cold War, but framed by UX, as even as NORAD went multi-lingual in 1998, streaming online in English, French, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese, after teaming up with Google in 2007.  But NORAD received something of a challenge in 2010, as Russian “GLONASS Tracks Father Frost,” sponsored by Ria Novosti (the Russian International News Agency) and Voice of Russia, and Russian Navigation Technologies, tracked the Slavic figure of Father Frost from his staff equipped with crystal-shaped GLONASS navigation module in his staff, which transmitted signals on the celebration of Winter Solstice on GLONASS Tracks Father Frost’s Official Website, perhaps encouraged by the motion of the geographic North Pole to Siberia by 2050!

The competition may also have originated in part in the wild popularity of allowing folks to track Santa in Google Earth for the first time–by adding both a Google Maps tracker and integrating YouTube videos of Santa’s flight, is also available as an app.  The expansion of tweets about Santa’s progress in 2008 increased the global monitoring of the fictional character that satisfied growing expectations that real-time mapping not only reflected reality but affirmed the make-believe, bringing joy by “Keeping the Dream Alive” for over 10 million visitors, and doing so by expanding its web presence on other platforms:  by 2011, the amped up search engines of Google helped NORAD’s Santa Tracker receive 18.9 million individual visitors to its website, benefitting from the combination of radar, satellite, Santa Cams and fighter jets to create an enhanced ability to witness Santa’s flight.  By 2007, the NORAD server reached YouTube, and Twitter updates followed in 2008, giving Santa Claus a social media presence not bad for a fictional character–although in 2007, the vast majority of the website’s viewers were concentrated in North America and the website was primarily identified with the United States, slightly undercutting its aims for global coverage.


Santa by Google nalatis.pngGoogle Analytics


1. We have increasingly become culturally addicted to affirm the continued presence of Santa in the world, to be sure.  The Santa Maps reflect our addicted to mapping our own position, the speeds of the flows of traffic about us, and the delays of air travel, as well as the patterns of weather, as if their mapping bequeaths an undoubtedly illusory control.  If we are faced with the conundrums of mapping rising global temperatures but being able to do little to stop them, the Santa Tracker suggests a map that is able to follow through on the promises of map to track the Sleigh as it moves from the North Pole.  The map affirms the universal presence of Santa in a divided world–almost in an echo across time of the ways that hand-drawn medieval mappamundi affirmed for their viewers the centrality of Christ to the world from the twelfth century–but does so by enlisting the state-of-the-art mapping techniques, in spite of the sheer fiction of the map.  But the high-tech evolution of Santa monitoring has become a respite from the sense that we–as citizens, or inhabitants of the world wide web, or as consumers–are being tracked.  But the giddy miracle of tracking the fictitious arrival of Santa Claus–affirming our trust in Santa’s existence, even in a hokey way–provides what passes as a moment of pleasure in a world so over-monitors that there is a one in two chance that adults in the United States can be searched in the law enforcement facial recognition software–over 17 million people–and where we live knowing that our whereabouts are mapped or geolocated by our iphones.

In an age when we are overlapped almost compulsively, the mapping of Santa is less a symbolic desecration of mystery than an extension of the probability that even Santa Claus might be mapped too, in a lounge-in-cheek entertainment of the idea that not even the fictional is free of the hegemony of the map.  The over seventy-year evolution of Santa Maps over the years offer new forms of concreteness to the annual arrival of Santa’s Sleigh across multiple mapping platforms to affirm believe in the imaginary, expanding the varieties of radar maps used to map Santa’s Christmas Eve journey from 1951.  From the first joint monitoring by the United States and Canada of polar regions–an observation now intensified to include meteorology and polar biodiversity as much as staking national claims of sovereignty–the image of monitoring the polar regions from the danger of Soviet trans-arctic invasions seems to have found a suitably peaceful expression in the guaranteeing of Santa safe passage to deliver Christmas gifts every December 24.

Even before the expansion of Canada’s international profile as a circumpolar nation, the notion of mapping Santa’s sleighborne flight was tied to overseeing polar regions, if not from the 1942 establishment of the Joint Christmas Certainty Command (J-CCC), from the debates about the Canadian supervision of polar regions by adequate, radar from 1951 and during the Cold War, when the two countries coordinated the Pinetree radar system, based on Canadian soil, in response to the fears that enemies might sneak across polar skies undetected.  While the United States pursued the question with a stronger sense of urgency, and lead over ninety radar stations to be built in Canada above the 55th parallel from 1954-7, and were fully functioning by 1957, enabling Santa to be tracked on the big screen by 1960.




Was surveying Santa’s flight was in a sense an early statement of the assertion of its status as a center of circumpolar knowledge and monitoring, as well as state sovereignty?




Perhaps the tracking of Santa is even a sort of arctic observation, affirming the ability to map the normalcy of the polar regions, despite the steep challenges climate change.





The expansion of the Santa Map technologies from remote monitoring, satellite observation, and environmental monitoring create an amplified UX.  With the ease of a click, we are able to descend through icy skies at points of Santa “sightings,” descending through atmospheric ice to aerial views of Santa flying his sleigh through snow-covered roofs of urban canyons, watching him on his way to deposit gifts as he continues on his night-time pilgrimage of giving gifts–as Santa is cast as an emissary of American culture.  If somewhat charming for many, it is bizarrely apt that the fiction of Santa is sustained by the members of the military.  For Santa’s flight, if first monitored as a celebration of American global hegemony, has found audiences for whom Santa has an upbeat appeal.  In sharp contrast with the chastising or disabusing of the image of Father Christmas in other lands, NORAD sustains the image of Santa’s annual arrival across the inhabited lands of the world with resolute good cheer.  But indeed when more children have smart phones than they believe in Santa in America, perhaps the government is on the right track to do what they can to create an image of Holiday cheer that continues to sustain Santa–as kids turn annually to their devices to take part in the collective observation of mapping the route of Santa’s sleigh, as if to find new ways to affirm the existence of an imaginary friend and to generalize the Holiday Season.

And what better tool for such generalization of joy than a map, despite its distance from an economy of gifts?




Although temporally limited to one evening of the year, the familiar searchable Santa Maps promise to materialize the dedication of an imaginary figure in giving gifts.  The purportedly “live” offer an upbeat mapping of global interconnectedness across permeable borders, and a metaphor of the universality of Christian Christmas through much of the world.  In a year of looking for good news in all the wrong places, it’s oddly comforting to toggle between the viewing options of NORAD offers on its interactive Santa Map:  if many used to celebrate Christmas around the hearth, all await the arrival of Santa’s Christmas sleigh before midnight to place presents beneath the tree.  Who would want to disabuse children of the imagined figure of Father Christmas?  The imperative to track Santa’s arrival online even seems a part of the anticipation of the Christmas season, as following Santa’s arrival online fills time waiting for a morning of opening gifts.


2.  Belief in Santa may be bolstered by the cartographical apparatus employed to describe Santa’s gift giving.  But the use of mapping abilities seems more likely an expression of the overabundance of mapping tools we now live with, and an exercise does in pure fun.  Yet is it all about joy?

Over the last ten years, NORAD boasts a virtually survey of where Santa Claus visited on earth; how many gifts he’s given; and what path he follows in images of enhanced interactive details.  At the same time, the recent  expansion of drone surveillance on the world’s longest international border from 28,000 feet, specially fitted with high-tech cameras, radar, and more offer the most constant surveillance monitoring of the world’s largest border at an annual cost of $60 million–expenditures last year resulted in the seizure of some 68,000 pounds of marijuana, or about $900/lb., by drones costing upwards of $12,000/hour.  The adoption of such wartime technologies to survey and map the border for Customs and Border Protection provided a good space for “testing out new equipment” by gathering video feeds relayed to the dozens of flat-screen monitors in central command posts in Tucson or Grand Forks, boasting the increased apprehensions of both people and vehicles who crossed the border during the past year missed by agents who monitor the border on the ground, in a program described as vital to border protection.


03drone3-master675Bridget Bennett for The New York Times


The insistence on investing on constant surveillance to secure the norther border of the United States to respond to  “limited mobility and visibility” finds its counterpart through the looking glass in the expanded tools for virtually monitoring the Christmas Eve arrival of Santa’s sleigh as it descends from the arctic each year.

The amplified enhanced UX of the Santa Map now allows us to toggle between 2-D and 3-D world views to watch the annual transit of Santa’s sleigh from the North Pole, and view his arrival at each city, in a sort of network of gift-giving.  The entertaining interface of the Santa Map invites us to click for further interest at individual camera icons, and open to the witnessing of his flight, fulfilling the promise NORAD made over sixty years ago to offer children the chance to track Santa over the telephone or, more recently, online, as they pass the time before the arrival of gifts on the night of December 24.  The apparent over-abundance of available mapping tools tracks a global itinerary on a single night condensed to a screen view that captures the sleigh-ride that crosses night-time skies at a speed.   NORAD’s fact sheet tells us, up to speeds “faster than starlight” on his course to lighten the load of gifts carried in his sleigh.  If the subject mapped on them is as intangible as stardust, the path is subject to virtual observation that remains thrilling:   Santa pops up with regularity before credible versions of cities and terrain view base maps, placing the mystery of his arrival within access of whoever is online, suspending our attention to a screen all Christmas Eve.

The flight of Santa from the North Pole was never that clearly planned in one’s spatial imaginary, but the notion that the sleigh might turn up on the cooperative surveillance by US and Canadian forces of the continent, dating from concerns in the Cold War of Russian cross-polar attack, long before hacking, back in 1955, has left off of the radar screens into a form of collective ritual of one-night observation of tracking the path of the sleigh whose arrival we need to cling to as never before.  Indeed, the coolest part of the ever-augementing user experience of the Santa Map is the ability to make a virtual travel of sorts by satellite view around the world.  While the satellite mapping of the  Santa Map may seem an icon of globalization, or an analogy of slipping across borders while enacting an ancient economy of giving gifts, the amplified UX of a service that has been paired with Bing! and Google Maps since 2004 seem a cocktail of mapping platforms just arrived in time for the holidays, keeping in pace with several options of mapping now offered online to make Santa’s annual night-time flight just a little bit more real when we need it.


3.  While such longstanding mapping by the United States and Canada of Santa Claus’ yuletide flight is more than fanciful, there’s a strong element of wish fulfillment this year that made the itinerary of Santa Claus all the more appealing, as a way to knit together the ruptures, refugees, and wartime grievances that 2016 brought.  But the maps are very much the apparatus, we must be mindful, of the state, for all the cheer that they communicate.  The promise of mapping Santa’s sleigh worldwide on its journey to distribute gifts in time for Christmas began at the joint command of American and Canadian military.  The joining of military forces during the Cold War for the greater good in a mapping more joyful than most of the maps we’ve recently seen.

Either in a tracking of Santa’s airborne itinerary, a satellite view of his sleigh, or his passage through familiar cityscapes, the user experience of the Santa Map promises viewers something like a sense of hope, charmingly removing the magic of “sightings” from the materiality of gifts, amping up anticipation by sporting the widely entertained fiction of the delivery of gifts from the North Pole.  The servers and platforms now able to be employed to “track” Santa’s voyage from the North Pole to one’s own home provide the best possible way to track the inter-connection of a web of belief, increasingly needed at a time of the increasingly the rapid mapping of global disasters, crises, wars, and a proliferation of meteorological or terrorist events that seem to span the earth’s surface in ways that stretch our geographic knowledge and cognitive abilities alike.

If the notion of artworks that open like a map was long evoked as a poetic image, the maps that open about Santa’s flight concretize a spatial imaginary far more concretely on a collective level than the expectation of Santa’s arrival at a hearth, chimney or city ever did.  The collective viewing experience of “Tracking Santa” with increasing anticipation on the eve of the holiday of gift exchange:  the intense rapidity of world-wide distribution of gifts offers a benign allegory for globalization, Santa’s sleigh visiting points around the world by crossing all national borders to give children Christmas gifts.


3d Santa Map on wy to Teheran.png




One rarely ties maps as entertaining as the NORAD Santa Map to power–especially when their online versions are accompanied by cheery Christmas synthesized pop–the combination of Santa Maps that NORAD offers the world are a sort of year-end surfeit of mapping technologies that filter to children worldwide, creating a collective spectacle of mapping Santa’s sleigh on its route deliver presents–and allowing us to vicariously observe a magical airborne itinerary in an unexpected dividend of satellite mapping military engagements and intelligence worldwide.

The abundant interfaces on social media offer an annual X-Mas movie by which one can track Santa world-wide, if only to anticipate his sleigh’s arrival at your own home, allowing you to locate Santa in a flash in a year that was almost regularly full of some pretty terrible news, finding holiday respite in NORAD Tracks Santa or Google Santa Tracker–and even if last year you could search for Santa on Bing!, Google now offers you the possibility of searching for Santa by voice!  Finding pleasure on a map was perhaps never so easy, with Microsoft Cortona offering similar voice activated interaction, and Siri joking about his possible locations–as Santa Claus has gained greater credibility with his increased integration with multiple search engines online.  NORAD has even decided to team up with NASA to offer 3-D images of where Santa was last spotted world-wide, in a screen you can rotate, zoom in on, and track in real time.

In many ways, the Santa Map provides the archetypal cartographical functions of tracing the relation to of the local to the global–the position of Santa’s route across the inhabited world, and of the position of every place in relation to the journey of Santa’s sleigh–that erase the deepening inequalities in a globalized world.  The proliferation of possibilities of tracking, mapping, visualizing trajectories, and capturing flight travel from space are all on offer in the Santa Map, even if Santa is the most elusive sort of cartographical subject.  The abundance of mapping tools are somehow, indeed, necessary to try to capture the dramatic power of Santa’s flight with credibility.  But the truly delightful part of the  Santa Map is the conviction with which it persuades viewers of bringing the figure of Father Christmas back into the world.  For imagining that one can really map his palpable presence recalls how medieval mappamundi oriented their viewers to Christ’s physical presence in the world.   Isn’t something like a category confusion at work in the abundant cartographical apparatus that makes the Santa Map so much fun?  It offers a way to affirm the presence of Santa’s flight in a narrative that we can mix with our own mapping tools, more than retread the pretty hoky story about a workshop of elves making gifts.


4.  Any mapping is only as good as its tools:  and despite some consternation that Santa’s sleigh’s location and the number of gifts he’s given vary on Google or other engines, the explanation of different reporting of locations is easily explained by NORAD’s use of radar and satellites in its extensive Santa Watch, while Google relies on wifi hot spots and cell phone towers for its regular updates, creating some sizable delays.  But the variety of views the Santa Map treats the night of annual gift exchange as a sort of joyous collective viewing spectacle, watching the sleigh moving at the speed of starlight linking cities around the world.  Users’ experience of search engines provides the best guarantee we could expect for the survival of Santa in the era of the online.

Despite the apparent frivolity of the project, tracking Santa seems so optimistic to be linked only by a hugely strained stretch to the domain of the military, or power of the state.  Its holiday cheer is an eery echo of remote surveillance, however, if the subject is as imaginary as figure as Santa Claus, whose travels across icy skies from the North Pole by sleigh are rendered in a clumsy but ebullient graphic interface that sends us soaring in the skies.  The tracking of Santa’s flight south on Christmas Eve was rather jauntily first imagined back in the mid-1950’s, runs the inherited legend, in response to the request of a nameless child who responded to a newspaper advertisement to give Santa updates on one’s gifts.  When inverting two digits in the number unintentionally connected the child to Combat Alert Center in Colorado, who were tasked with monitored airplane flights over North America on radar, using a large glass board of the national airspaces of United States and Canada, the supervising officer is said to have been game enough to offer an update of what his team saw on the radar, and readily invited other callers to begin a tradition of the military servicemen.

The mapping project expanded online to become a collective event of observation.  Volunteers continue to man phone banks every Christmas Eve, as well as using satellite surveillance and airplane flights to inform kids about the arrival of Santa–although in ways that have dramatically expanded as a graphic interface and user experience, and offer a far greater range of modalities for monitoring Santa’s flight, satirizing the statistical fetishism and metrics of world-wide monitoring in which folks at NORAD also engage when not taking the public stage each Christmas Eve as the bearers of good will.  The use of high-tech tools of satellite tracking to embody the unseen Sleigh, in ways radar once offered, have expanded our abilities to track and give long-imagined visibility Santa’s night-time flight, with the result of promising a somewhat magical transformation rendering Santa’s flight-path in multiple modes, from a live tracking-map fixed not only on the blip of the sleigh on the screen back in 1955, to infra-red imaging mapping impulses of Rudolph’s glowing nose.

Since 2007, Santa Map have been made available by a Google-NORAD partnership which tracks the terrestrial distribution of over six billion gifts–tracking an avatar Santa’s flight by webcams and in a series of live-tracked tweets to lend a real sense of warmth by transposing child-hood geographical curiosity and wonder into the cartographical mainstream.  What could be wrong with that?   Real-time tracking of the progress of Santa’s sleigh each Christmas Eve is sufficiently heart-warming enough to erase Cold War antecedents of mapping the entry of Santa Claus into U.S. airspace.  The maps capture the chill of arctic air in ways that offer a more than welcome distraction from the increasing temptations of the renewed apocalypticism in America today, even if they echo the new prominence of remote surveillance on a global scale that seems a friendlier NSA.

Rather than perpetuate NORAD’s original conceit of helping or protecting Santa’s flight into American airspace that was hatched during a dangerous Cold War world, the collective interactive mapping of the path of Santa departing from the North Pole is after all a fun holiday cartographic interface, as a Christmas movie in which one can participate with Santa Claus’ airborne itinerary from the North Pole as he bears gifts through the world–


article-2078336-0F4486C900000578-594_634x424.jpgSanta Leaves a Melted North Pole


–watching him arrive at any city on his path, as arriving with a bag still stuffed with goodies as his sleigh coasts past the familiar sight of the Washington Monument–


santa-to-washSanta Descends to Washington, DC


The webpage that begins with a view through falling snowflakes that clear to offer better resolution on Santa’s night-time path suggests a magic of mapping the mythical by mapping a glimmer of hope:  Santa’s flight is perhaps a ridiculous thing to map, but the exactitude of mapping it is a way of making good on the sense of hope for the holiday season, and embodies our best desires even as it provides a way of ramping up expectations by state-of-the-art versions of our over-abundant mapping tools.


5.  Despite the slightly eery undertone of the surveillance of Santa in a globalized world, the tracker is a promise hard to resist:  mapping what so many kids long wished to know for one night a year–the time of Santa’s arrival–it seems to suspend the notion of global conflict for Christmas evening in an all too appealing image of world peace.  The apparatus of global satellite mapping is less emulated than it is satirized in how the North American Aerospace Defense Command have long devoted Christmas Eve have continued since 1951 to track Kris Kringle flying from chimney to chimney across national borders and continental bounds, in the most traditional emblem of global harmony, as much as can be achieved by the statistics of gifts in the process of delivery by the path of a Santa avatar, combining radar, satellites, Santa Cams and the perspective of fighter jets to trace the sleigh’s air-borne path overhead or his progress online via Google Earth.  In a world where some of our clearest spatial imaginaries are perhaps most commonly are rooted in range of cell coverage, weather, or remotely observed war, the annual mapping of Santa’s sleigh offers an odd combination of all three able to bring wonder with a bit of arctic chill.


North America.png




The easy superimposition of a GPS tracker on an image of world-view have created a sense of wonder at witnessing Santa’s progress on Christmas Eve from 1955, when the US-Canadian  Military units began to do so by radar at the hight of the Cold War.  The development from the old radar trackers to the increasing interfaces allowed by interactive maps, the North American Aerospace Defense has almost recast networks of global surveillance as pure interactive fun across a flat screen monitor–allowing us to map Santa Claus’ flight in an age where our spatial imaginaries are difficult to surprise.  And if it hardly makes much sense to speak of a military-holiday complex, the coursing views of Santa’s sleigh seem especially evocative in a decade of remotely sensed and mapped war.  The notion of tracking Santa is especially benign, especially when one adds a legend to the map to reveal that all this satellite surveillance is monitoring the giving of gifts, which, together with an avatar to display the path of a reindeer-driven sleigh, give a narrative content to the maps that have increasingly come to offer a popular collective mapping resource and combined wonder with the regular sharing of military surveillance coordinated with Christmas Eve, tapping into and generalizing a child-like sense of wonder that marks a season of giving.




Whether we sit at home or before a flat-screen monitors that track Santa avatars in the control booth of a NORAD command center, it’s fun to act as the cartographer tracking the flight of Santa’s sleigh–or to get to play the part of a Santa tracker for a night.  And there’s a special sense of complicity in tracking Santa that’s maybe somehow similar to monitoring drone planes, were it not for the wearing of red felt Christmas hats with white pompoms and the mock-seriousness of describing the unmistakable infra-red signal that Rudolph’s nose emits after Santa appears on the radar screen, and satellites in geo-synchronous orbit some 22,300 miles from the Earth’s surface use infrared sensors to trace his path.




Despite the familiarity of earth trackers, there’s a form of magic in the superimposition of a GPS tracking of Rudolph’s nose so bright on a base map of Earth View rekindles a sense of wonder that might temporarily mask in a war-torn world where peace is not longer so clear, and nations increasingly face with the plights of dispersed global refugees, who just don’t appear on the map.


6.  One cannot sensibly speak of a military-holiday complex–or even imagine what one would be-since the Santa Tracker overwhelms with its silly sense of fun.  But the transformation of cross-border surveillance operatiosn to show Santa’s overhead course on Christmas Eve, rendered here by a lavender line, rides the new popularity of maps to invite kids to spend the night tracking Santa avatars:  doing so isn’t only an attractive way of staving off video games.  It’s also a pretty awesome demonstration of the democracy of mapping and global tracking, if not of the fact that We Are All Cartographers, as we track Santa’s journey from our homes or warm beds, using a system of satellite tracking–instead of radar–in a virtual Santa observatory mapping bringing goodwill and delivering presents to all boys and girls, but even more compellingly assigning Santa an actual geographic route, in a triumph of the geographical imagination.


Santa's Route.png


–or, to put it in terms of a map-based search engine good only on the special evening of  December 24, as Santa gives new meaning to the “inhabited world,” if not the Christian idea of the ecumene as lands inhabited by Christian worshippers and the worldly church:


Where is Santa?.png


If the global scope of cameras tracking sleigh-travel at the speed of starlight has a ring of surveillance, whose heart wouldn’t be warmed by the tracking of gifts received world-wide?  Yet nonetheless, it’s a bit spooky that what’s being surveilled is Santa, that icon of the bringer of joy, as we monitor the mystery of the arrival of gifts in a tally that seems a suitable proxy for the other truly significant digits of Christmas Eve.  What it means to bring the magical into the real or mundane may be depressing to some, but it’s wildly popular, like Pokémon GO!


7.  The broadcasting of Christmas over a large space is something to which we are used, however, in ways that move far from the North American continent to the virtual sharing of holiday well wishes worldwide.  As a cleric beside the Ottawa priest celebrating Christmas mass took photos repeatedly that seemed posted to Facebook before evening mass–either perhaps compensating from diminished parishioners seated in pews or in recognition of the possibilities of proselytization since the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission recently decided to recognize and affirm universal rights of access to broadband with unlimited data as a fundamental right.  In either case, the ritual religious celebrations of Christmas meet an increasing audience online.  (The promise of universal download speeds of at least 50Mbps and upload speeds of 10Mbps will extend over the next 10-15 years, to be guaranteed by $750 million of federal funds to ensure a standard of universal availability, would be something like a true universal Christmas gift, offering free service and bearing the promise to broadcast future masses from Nunavut to the Nova Scotia coast from the capital parish church.)

But if the remote sensing of Santa Claus’s fast-as-starlight flight as has origins in the notion that state forces would protect Santa from the dangers of enemy attack.  The protection of Santa from the soviets had it origins back in 1955, but it has wildly expanded as a mass-phenomenon of slightly different scale in an age of remote surveillance, web-maps, and video games, when the online mapping of Santa’s flight–and seems more a global spectacle of real-time tracking than a mythologizing of the air defenses of the Continent.  Back in 1955, someone in the military hit upon the somewhat genial notion that the Continental Air Defense Combat’s Operations Center assigned to protect against the possibility of a Soviet trans-polar attack on the United States might also offer Santa safe conduct from the North Pole.

Since then, however, the mapping of Santa’s delivery route has huge appeal as an X-MAS childhood past-time of Christmases past–both encouraging many kids to use mapping search engines on the holidays to find how near Santa is on his way, and expanding the uses of maps to take part in the pleasure of, well, tracking his sleigh while it was bearing gifts to kids along the US-Canada border, viewing the job of the air force to cement cross-border solidarity, and indeed create commonality in need of defense:  Santa’s path is safely protected, the safety of his clear path monitored for children by the alert and constant surveillance of NORAD.


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Back in 1955, there was an immediate appeal to a military enlisted who protected the nation from Those Who Did Not Believe in Christmas–giving Santa a remake as an icon of the Free World, if not of the Cold War, against those who might even indeed be so bad as to gun Santa down and prevent the annual arrival of gifts.  The remote sensing of Santa’s flight-path over North America has far earlier antecedents of the first radar operations, dating back of course to the Cold War, if with technologies are updated to keep up with satellite sensing abilities on a global scale, but mixed the artisanal aspects of the sleigh and the icon of the USAF in a creepy way to domesticate the timeless nature of military threats, and naturalize threats of Russian invasion across the North Pole.  Perhaps the real story is that of the refraction of childhood wonder and geographical curiosity to a far wider audience through the compelling fiction of the real-time mapping of Santa’s progress across the night-time skies–as if a sleigh traveling at the speed of starlight is tracked as it appeared on NORAD’s radar screens.




The flight of Santa’s sleigh from the North Pole was once monitored to keep it free of anti-ballistic missiles by radar in response at the height of the Cold War.  But global monitoring of Santa’s flight by NORAD is curiously cast as a benevolent image of global surveillance for the Holiday Season, the map invites children to follow in a new collective ritual of suspending belief by vicariously watching the progress of Santa’s starlight path online, without relying on something as cheesy as a Santa SpyCam as providing the “ultimate proof” of Santa’s existence.  But such real-time mapping has also come of age in an age of satellite tracking.


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The Christmas pop soundtrack of familiar carols accompanying NORAD ‘s interactive SantaCam might be a new collective religion of the holidays.  In any event, part of the pleasure is surely that it’s placed on a strictly scientific foundation:  the tracking of Santa isn’t quite recognizable to some as a message of seasons greetings, although it is to some who are more habituated to recon satellites than to the Catholic mass, and don’t see any conflict between Santa’s satellite tracking and religion.

The tracking maps must be fun to make:   it’s hard not to smile at mock-military reports that the satellite detection “NORAD has confirmation from the missile defense agency that Santa is traveling north over Greenland:  the Space Tracking and Surveillance System, or STSS, consists of  two satellites orbiting the earth using infra-red sensors orbiting the earth as part of the ballistic intercontinental missile defense system:  but don’t worry:  the STSS knows that Santa is bearing gifts, and doesn’t classify him as a threat!”  Indeed, the maps allow us to track his progress in bearing those gifts, offering a form of big data appropriate for the holiday season of how many gifts meet all their recipients world-wide, as well as locally.  The official Santa Tracker helpfully informs its audience in quite reassuring terms to keep their interests at heart; if Santa’s arrival seems to face meteorological obstacles danger, “U.S. and Canadian defense units will steer him into the prevailing jet stream which should double his speed, and around stormy weather west of the Hudson Bay areas.”

And while originating in the North Atlantic, monitoring Santa’s global path beside a running tally of his sleigh’s speed, last sighting, and gifts delivered.  If not magical, blending the holiday spirit and the global surveillance by satellite still seems more than the slightest bit creepy in its evocation of the speed not of sleighs moving fast as starlight but, in some sense echoing the missile-delivery capacities–even when juxtaposed with a running tally of 2,231,027,576 Christmas gifts delivered and growing whose abundance increases with no clear geographical discontinuity as Santa moves from country to country, led by reindeer on his path.




The echoes of a global reach of military intelligence and satellite mapping are especially evident when one considers its cartographical conventions strikingly similar to those of static military maps–even if they’re employed to explain how to watch Santa’s route in 3D.  For the strong sense that this is the indulgence of the US Military to a global public recognition of the infectious joy of the holiday spirit.  (The global notion that Santa brings gifts in Yemen and presumably to displaced refugees as well among the 2,277, 773, 659 already delivered brings comfort, and it’s encouraging that the registers of “Gifts Delivered” seems to steadily grow.)


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But the celebration of the technologies of military mapping seem The US-Canadian joint North American Aerospace Defence Command has long defended the sky over both nations as well as monitors sea approaches for shared safety from control rooms sequestered deep inside Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, but employing latest technology to track Santa Claus on his Christmas  flight that far outstrips anything its antecedents hoped to track, allowing the global itinerary of Santa enhanced by tools of aerial imaging and digital images that recall virtual reality—


Satellite Tracking NORAD.png



–with a technophilia truly a bit creepy–even when one considers the far more creepier things in which satellite surveillance monitors: “ fun fact: ’s satellite system is so powerful it can even detect the red glow from ’s nose!”




The benefits of providing a SantaCam online may be a nice relief in the over predictability of a world of Google Maps to include the changing spatial positions of Santa, the reindeer, sleigh, if it might be seen as some as a domestication of rather terrifying surveillance tools–even if Google Maps now offers its own Google Santa Tracker, and one could for some time also search Santa on Bing.  But the confirmation that we are all now cartographers is hardly news in itself–and we might as well accept the notion of an updated Santa Tracker as offering something of an introduction to online maps–as well as offering some cheer about a serious subject to be wrestled with the rest of the year.





8.  The mock-military rhetoric of surveillance is indulged in for the Christmas Eve event of remote tracking.   “The STSS is able to keep Santa in our sights,” assures the full-voiced narrator of NORAD clips with only the slightest hint of irony to those not paying close attention, “especially since Rudolph’s bright red nose is easily detectable with our infra-red sensors.” The proud possessive that might evoke clear memories of the militarized setting in which radar surveillance systems were first laid in place, as if attempting to dispel tension with holiday cheer, and still serve as an extremely popular form of wishing well to children across most of the world to remit increased tensions about the emergence of a specter of more consequential arms race, at a time when the President-elect not only flirted with renewing one, but threatened to “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability and arsenal on Twitter.

The ever-active military is certainly shown doing more good than bad in spending their nights tracking Santa, although this is something of a PR event and a whitewash of how we see satellite surveillance as acting on behalf of the public good–in this case ensuring not only Santa’s progress, but that all kids everywhere manage to receive gifts.





The annual monitoring of Santa’s flight, or NORAD Tracks Santa, is an operation now outfitted with a tally of gifts delivered to houses and aerial camera feeds of pretty good CGI, purportedly began in 1955 not so much as a military operation but an outreach effort originally designed to promote the role of military surveillance tools:  the story that a kind-hearted Continental Air Defense Command officer instructed his men to take calls of children after receiving a phone call, inspired by a newspaper ad inviting children to call Santa Claus to describe their wishes was misread as the hotline to the Continental Air Defence Command may have been apocryphal, despite the appeal of the contingency of an inversion of digits led to a misdialing of the CADC’s supervising Lieutenant one Christmas eve.


Santa by Phone.png


The oft-repeated myth of beneficence of course erased the actual response Col. Harry Shoup, Commander of the Colorado Combat Operations Center, gave on the phone, as he mused wryly–according to one witness with a Colorado Springs dateline–“There might be a guy named Santa at the North Pole, but he’s not the one I worry about coming from that direction.”  But neither Col. Shoup or NORAD paused to promote the beneficial role of the folks at NORAD in preserving the holidays–calling the local radio station promptly and getting in on the game with a pronouncement from the Commander of the Combat Alert Center that he had “located an unidentified flying object [that] well, looks like it’s a sleigh.”  The claim led the local station to phone him regularly for updates on the sleigh’s progress.   In fashioning this myth of mapping, both NORAD and Shoup happily enlisted the incidents of inverted digits to promote the positive role of national defense, to naturalize the polar observatory as a defense of children’s favorite family holidays in self-serving ways, joined as it is at the hip to a mission of national self-preservation.  But it’s also important to realize that casting the what was then the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Center as protecting good cheer wasn’t so removed from the promise of hope to a war-torn Europe’s many victims and refugees.

Incidentally, however, he also created something of a new duty often performed with good cheer by volunteers and airmen in military uniform world-wide, as a way of domesticating the emergence of NORAD tracking.  Mapping Santa’s journey is now something one can after all easily do online, even by downloading the official Santa tracker app, in a testimony to the diffusion of cartographical skills and of our devices to funnel ADD.  He also created something impossible to stop in the horizon of collective expectations of every Christmas holiday:  Col. Shoup would long treasure the amount of fan mail he received thanking him for the feigned observations; over 1,500 volunteers fielded the 141,000 phone calls in 2015, only a small fraction of the website’s twenty-two million individual visitors.  If volunteers, rather than military personnel, staff the phones at air force bases to field tens of thousands of calls about Santa’s whereabouts, and demand a personalized answer to make good on the promise of global satellite surveillance, if they don’t want to use the toll-free number 877-hi-NORAD:  according to Lt. Commander Paul Noel–did he get the specific assignment due to sheer coincidence or his real last name?–in 2015, the number grows yearly, no doubt amplified by increasingly complex mapping tools, social media, and twitter feeds.  And the Santa Tracker may offer one of the best reads on Twitter these days.

The campaign to imagine Santa’s tracking in 1955 was of course tied to the campaign to domesticate the Cold War–as a benevolent act of doing good that extends seamlessly into the season of Christmas good-doers, or at least detract from any fears about the Continental Air Defense Combat Operation Center by treating it as a place for tracking the journey of Santa from the North Pole at an elevation of over 35,000 feet, even if it moves at the speed of starlight.  Although the legend of the myth of a phone call a Lieutenant received has been questioned, the image that the expanded military budget of the Cold War Era received a certain refurbishing in the public eye, no doubt.  NORAD was by 1971 shown actively aiding Ole Kris Kringle in planning his flight by offering him insight to his best flight path–to remove the SAGE Weapons control center from the threat of global war.  The image of the United States Weapons Controller  helping Kris map his sleigh’s course offers the fiction of a benevolent military current web-monitoring continues–lest one think that control centers occur only in anonymous buildings of poured concrete.






The expansive role of military in current efforts to field kids’ phone calls seems a bit of a similar PR job, to say the least.




Although one is tempted to engage in a dark narrative of the effects of internalizing global military surveillance to include Santa’s aerial path–and the tragedy of demystifying the course of the reindeer-driven flight from the north pole–although the story that the tradition began as one of the military engaging in the Holiday spirit is perpetuated in ways that mirror the expanded global scope of military surveillance of the night skies–even if we are less often told of how Santa Claus’ sleigh is accompanied by Sentry jets as he re-enters Canadian air space.  Is there a tacit suggestion that some Russian airplanes or silos might also be tracking his path, which needs to be preserved for what was once known as the free world, or also a bit of wistfulness at how far our technologies have come from our dreams?





The story about how once after newspaper advertisement was placed in Colorado Springs that invited kids to call Santa Claus to describe their wishes included the hotline at the Continental Air Defense Command, the Air Force Colonel supervising airmen ordered his airmen to take the calls is apocryphal.  But the duty often performed by volunteers and airmen in military uniform and Santa hats before small ornament-adorned tinsel trees recur each holiday season–offering a new way to see our men and women in uniform that we can’t help applaud, even as a counter-map of the expanded capacities of surveillance the NSA now vaunts in the name of preserving an increasingly false sense of peace–even if it is nonetheless an occasion for levity, and a seems animated by tenuously preserving a sense of hope in an incongruous atmosphere of holiday cheer.  The folks are having fun doing it, and you can bet those at the other end are enjoying it too.




But what’s a better Christmas gift?  For at what seems almost roughly the same price, the promise of a pixellated scrim seems, however joyful, a fleeting pittance compared to the promise of universal internet access.

Perhaps we might do better to contemplate the ethics of where those hats and other merchandise arrive from, if we want to see the real costs and economical imbalances refracted in the material place of Santa Claus in the sweat shops of the unevenly distributed economy of an irrevocably globalized world.


Santa Globalization.png


–as much as to be entranced by tracking the pseudo-magic of his sleigh’s flight.  The problem of Santa Tracking poses the real problem of what is the best way of intervening in the public sphere, either by improving the degree of access and download speeds, or by providing the promise of Santa’s eventual arrival.





1 Comment

Filed under Christmas, globalization, mapping technologies, Satellite maps, satellite surveillance

One response to “NORAD Maps the Flight of Santa’s Sleigh

  1. Rachel Brownstein

    Ho Ho Ho. Merry Christmas! love to all in Ottawa!


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