Each year, I like to call attention to the NORAD Tracks Santa web site (noradsanta.org), and this year is certainly no exception.
In 1955, the Sears, Roebuck & Co. store in Colorado Springs, Colo., set up a telephone line that kids could call to get a message from Santa. But when they took out a newspaper ad to promote it, someone got the phone number wrong. The number that was actually printed in the newspaper was, by a gigantic fluke, the operations hotline for Col. Harry Shoup at the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), based in Colorado Springs.
Shoup, rather than get mad about the mistake, had his staff begin checking the radar for evidence that Santa had begun his journey.
That started an annual tradition of tracking Santa and making his location known to boys and girls. In 1958, CONAD was merged into the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a partnership between the U.S. and Canada. NORAD continued the Santa-tracking tradition started by CONAD.
With the arrival of the Internet, and with the help of various corporate sponsors, NORAD was able to turn its Santa tracking into a web site starting in 1998. Children can not only track Santa's position on Christmas Eve but even watch video of him zipping past various world landmarks.
And the web site isn't just for Christmas Eve, either. It has various puzzles and games in its "Kids' Countdown" section to enjoy throughout December, with a new one added each day.
There's also background information about Santa, including a frequently-asked questions list and audio of Virginia's famous letter to the New York Sun asking about Santa and newsman Francis Church's response to it. There's even technical data on Santa's sleigh.
The Christmas Eve tracking is done using Google Earth, a wonderful free program that you should have on your computer anyway. It's sort of a virtual globe that allows you to zoom in and out and view just about any location on earth. Go to earth.google.com to download it now, and then you can import the Santa-tracking information into it on Christmas Eve.
If you're traveling or otherwise not near a computer on Christmas Eve, you can open Google Maps on your smartphone and search for "Santa" to find out the big guy's current location as reported by NORAD. Or you can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and get an e-mail back with his current location.
The original telephone line is still maintained as well, with the current number being (877) HI-NORAD, or (877) 446-6723.
It's a great holiday tradition, and one which can be a fun way to spend Christmas Eve. (It can also help encourage kids to get to bed before Santa's arrival!)
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.