NORAD Maps the Flight of Santa’s Sleigh

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—

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–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.

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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.

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–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, United States Defence Meteorological Satellite Program

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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