The US military provided real-time updates on Santa’s location long before Google.

Gather ’round, kids, and Great-Grandpa will tell you a tale. It starts way back in 1955, a year after the Supreme Court threw out school segregation (unfortunately, the rest of America was still Great Again).

The scene was a place in Colorado Springs, tucked in the snow. Kind of like Santa’s workshop, except its purpose wasn’t delivering toys, but strategic nuclear bombs.

You see, back then, we were in the Cold War. Why, in five years we’d come as close to all-out nuclear war as we ever have! At the foot of Pike’s Peak lay the headquarters of CONAD?—?we call it NORAD now?—?and its job was to let us know if the Soviets were sending bombers to nuke America in enough time for us to send our Strategic Air Command bombers to shower them in nuclear death.

The man who started it all, Col. Harry Shoup. | NORAD

Anyway, on the morning of November 30, one of Lt. Col. Harry Shoup’s phones at CONAD HQ started ringing. It was the red phone, and it only rang in a real crisis. Shoup’s daughter told NPR, “Only a four-star general at the Pentagon and my dad had the number.” Shoup picked it up. It wasn’t the general, but the voice of a little boy, who asked, “Is this Santa Claus?” Thinking he was being prank called, Shoup was mighty miffed:

“There may be a guy called Santa Claus at the North Pole, but he’s not the one I worry about coming from that direction.”

Shoup said the little boy started crying. The colonel had kids of his own, so he gave a “Ho, ho ho,” asked him if he’d be a good boy, then asked to speak to his mother. Shoup said she asked him, “You haven’t seen the paper yet?”

NORAD

As Shoup told it, a local Sears store—back in our day, it was kinda like Target?—?had run an ad saying kids could call in and tell old St. Nick what they wanted for Christmas. But they’d apparently misprinted the number and put CONAD’s red line down instead. Shoup said he figured more calls were coming, so he had two airmen answer the red phone and pretend to be Santa. CONAD stuck by this story, and Sears did, too.

The Pasadena Independent tells it a bit differently. It says the boy didn’t dial a number he saw in a Sears ad; he just mixed up the digits himself:

And that’s why Matt Novak over at Gizmodo says the Sears ad was bullshit, printed after the fact by CONAD itself, to draft Jolly Old St. Nick into the propaganda battle against Communism. See, at that time, the strategic nuclear commands were working to justify their existence to the American people. Why, any day, atom bombs could rain from the sky, and a lot of regular folks didn’t want to live that way. So they worked with Hollywood types to make movies that scared adults into supporting their funding with tax dollars. And Novak says this Santa kerfuffle was CONAD’s plan to sell a positive image of themselves to kiddies like you.

Novak calls it “one of the most successful military PR campaigns of the last century.” He says it’s even in PR textbooks.

Them fact-checkers at Snopes say there’s not enough evidence to frame the story as the military’s stunt to drum up support. And it’s the original version of the story, based on the Sears misprint, that your great-grandpa here chooses to believe. I think it’s a Christmas miracle!

Whatever happened, on Christmas Eve, Shoup called a local radio station and told them, “This is the commander at the Combat Alert Center, and we have an unidentified flying object. Why, it looks like a sleigh.” The station called him back every hour, asking where Santa was. The Associated Press picked up the story and it went nationwide.

Colorado Springs, Colo., Dec 23 (AP)?—?Santa Claus Friday was assured safe passage into the United States by the Continental Air Defense Combat Operations Center here which began plotting his journey from the North Pole early Friday morning…CONAD, Army, Navy and Marine Air Forces will continue to track and guard Santa and his sleigh on his trip to and from the U.S. against possible attack from those who do not believe in Christmas.

“Those who do not believe in Christmas”—that’s the Russkies, children. Take that, godless Communists!

Gene W. Ritchhart/CC

The fine folks at NORAD kept up the holiday tradition. These days, they get up to 140,000 phone calls for Santa every year. Like any other organization worth its salt, NORAD has a website and an app where you can track Santa’s sleigh in real time.

Go to bed now, kids, and know that jolly Kris Kringle is up there tonight, protected by our boys in their all-weather F-15 Strike Eagles and F-22 Raptor air superiority fighters.