Tracking Santa Claus from the North Pole on Christmas Eve by radar is an example of a tradition that had its origins in the early boomer years and which continues today. Radar had been used, in rudimentary forms, as far back as the late 1930s. World War II advanced the use and technology. It was during the war that radar operators noticed that weather patterns gave them a noise reading; through experimentation, a Doppler Radar system was developed that could be used by the National Weather Service in the early 1960s. But that is getting ahead of our story.
The Cold War was in full swing in the 1950s and radar technology stood at the front lines of our defense systems. When your opponent could launch a missile attack at any time, the more advanced your radar system was, the earlier warning you’d have to mount a counter-offensive. So went the conversation in the schoolyard.
What we had were two seemingly-divergent radar paths — civilian and military use — that met one day in December of 1955. The story begins in Colorado Springs, Colorado. A Sears Roebuck store ran an ad in the local newspaper that gave children a “Santa hotline” number to call on Christmas Eve. Instead of reaching Santa, the mistyped number connected callers to the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD). After receiving a few calls, Colonel Harry Shoup began telling children that even though they had the wrong number, they could rest assured that Santa was on his way because he was spotted on radar leaving the North Pole. The tradition began from then on. In 1958, Canada and the United States jointly created the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), which took over the duties of tracking Santa’s trek on Christmas Eve each year and reporting to TV stations. They would then air the report during the weather forecast.
For Mister Boomer, seeing the radar tracking of Santa Claus each year on the evening news seemed as commonplace as Cheerios and corn flakes in the morning. Of course NORAD could track Santa. Every schoolboy knew they were our military defense system.
The presentation of this “fact,” though, did leave much to be desired. Mister B recalls the station his parents watched most often showing a visual that was supposed to be Santa on his sleigh, being pulled by reindeer, flying overhead on the radar screen. The program, broadcast in black and white, was received on the family’s Sylvania TV and displayed on the tube in dull shades of gray that echoed the Midwestern December sky. For a full fifteen seconds, there it was: a lightbox with a cut-out of Santa’s sleigh and reindeer casting a hazy shadow on the “radar” screen. The now-familiar sweeping radar arm turned clockwise around the screen, illuminating a white, circular light when it reached the twelve o’clock position. Even for a six year old, the presentation had the feel of a project a dad might make in his garage.
Another channel’s presentation was even worse: they didn’t even bother to project an image. Instead, they literally stuck a white silhouette directly on their “radar” screen. Santa’s position didn’t move. Santa couldn’t move. Yet these and countless other TV stations reassured boomer children that Santa was on his way, with lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh.
The tradition lives on today with a technology update that lets kids track Santa even on a cell phone!
What memories of tracking Santa by radar can you recall, boomers?