If Santa Claus is global, the image of Santa living in the North Pole outside of sovereign divides has been elevated to a new horizon of expectations in the age of real-time maps. The question of “Where is Santa?” now can be responded to on a real-time viewer, prepared each and every Christmas Eve for over fifty-fie years, the North American Aerospace Command. For since the Cold War, and through the present age of smart phones and real-time tracking, NORADh as invited viewers all over the world the chance to track the gift-laden sleigh of Santa crossing the night-time sky at the speed of starlight. Never mind the different hours and expectations of Santa Claus in different nations or countries. For NORAD allows the world to track the flight of Claus cum reindeers on NORAD’s Santa Tracker, an annual collective exercise in mapping of increasing popularity, moving the image of bearing gifts into the globalized world.
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 sled-borne 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. Santa may face a different workweek in the malls where he can now be met in many different nations–as he traverses national borders with different work weeks!–
–but the folks in the U.S. government and NORAD it completely reasonable to have the right to track the geospatial complexity of Santa’s sleigh ride, without removing any mystery out of Christmas holidays. It may be even reassuring that if Christmas Eve is Santa’s busiest hour of flight, the arcs of where reindeers guide his flightpath can be illuminated on our devices, in vivid geospatial specificity and even local detail.
Their annually updated 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.
Santa Leaves North Pole on YouTube (2010)
Santa Trackers in Colorado
Viewing 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.