01 December 2009


When I was a kid, thanks to the encouragement of our culture in general and my parents in particular, I was an ardent believer in the popular myth of Santa Claus. In fact, it wasn't until the relatively late age of 11 that a disdainful classmate disabused me of that belief. Only then did it become clear to me why my parents stayed up so late on Christmas eve - they were wrapping and placing under the tree all the gifts from "Santa" which they had previously bought or made.

Since then it has always puzzled me why we, as loving parents, set our children up for such intense feelings of disappointment and betrayal. While we are small and innocent, the experience is magical, and of course capitalism and the media are only too happy to play along. After the disillusioning rite of passage, perhaps Santa becomes a metaphor for our parents' love. That might explain why I perpetuated the myth with my own child. It's an enigma.

Here's an interesting twist, with its roots in the frenzy of Christmas consumerism. In 1955, a Colorado Springs-based Sears store ran an advertisement encouraging children to call Santa Claus on a special telephone hotline. Due to a printing error, the wrong phone number was published, and calls poured in to the Director of Operations at the Continental Air Defense Command. The Director, upon sorting out what had happened, instructed his staff to give Santa's position to any child who called.

Three years later, the goverments of the United States and Canada combined their respective national air defenses into the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), but the tradition continued. Now major media outlets as well as children call in to inquire on Santa's location. In 1997 the service was expanded to include a Santa-tracking web site.

The fictional background storyline has changed with the world political situation. During the Cold War when the tracking team provided updates only by radio announcements, only North America was mentioned and Santa's approach was described in tense terms with interceptor aircraft being scrambled to shoot down the "bogie". Only at the last minute would the pilot realize whom he was engaging. Now the Web shows that as Santa approaches Newfoundland in Canada, a flight of Canadian Air Force fighters rendezvous with him to provide an honor guard.

In 2007 NORAD started tracking Santa in 3-D using Google Earth. His "location" is updated every five minutes. For those of you who would like to access NORAD's Santa tracking service, here is the link, with a continuous countdown clock.

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