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.
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.