NORAD has been tracking Santa since before it was NORAD. Though I'm told I saw it earlier than that, I remember watching grainy black and white stock film on our black and white TV in the early 60s. Some of them were clearly CONAD footage with an altered sound track and a new (better quality) bit of film spliced in that showed an entry sign that said NORAD instead of CONAD (details I didn't notice till years later.)
The clips would start during the afternoon movie, showing Santa travelling over someplace in eastern Europe. Earnest young techs at their consoles, stern officers overseeing operations, a tracking map that covered a whole wall- And on that map, a tiny sleigh with eight miniature reindeer.
We were military kids in a military town. "Duck and Cover" was not a piece of period kitsch played in short bits for laughs; it was as real as the test of the air raid siren each Monday at noon. (The running joke was that if the Russians were smart they'd attack Monday at noon because everyone would ignore the siren.) It was a Navy town, so none of our dads were in NORAD, but they were on the line too, or had been. We were in a late phase of a 70 year ideological struggle, our phase being called the "Cold War." But we had held our breath for seven days in May of 1962, and knew that cold could turn to hot.
As it got closer to dark, the intensity grew. Finally, fighters scrambled and intercepted the approaching aircraft over the Atlantic to verify what it was. Stock footage of F-104 Starfighters with brave pilots (we knew pilots were brave- After all, we lived in the shadow of Fightertown, USA, where the movie "Top Gun" would later be set) were inter-cut with animations of Santa, sleigh, and reindeer. We were so excited we could hardly eat! Santa was approaching the East Coast! He'd be in California in no time!
These are treasured memories of my childhood. Santa was coming, and NORAD was keeping us safe. If we now know that what NORAD would really have told us is that we were going to die in something between 17 and 33 minutes, that's the fault of offensive technology growing faster than defensive. (That there is still no real continental missile defense in place 50 years later is the fault of assorted politicians who seek to appease our enemies, but that's a rant for another time.) We probably saw more of this because we were a military town, but it was available for everyone.
The animations on the NORAD Santa Tracker are much nicer these days. The grainy black and white films have been replaced by very nice digital images. There are more points where Santa is spotted, and the tracking starts much earlier in the day. It's a bit of fun for kids, and most of the work, including the phone banks, is handled by volunteers. A bunch of them are working under a mountain a long ways from home, and they give their free time to make Christmas memories for kids in record numbers.
I've seen a few Facebook and several Twitter posts that sound a great deal like Scrooge. "Christmas! A fine excuse for NORAD to pick the taxpayer's pocket every 25th of December!" from the childless who have apparently lost their inner child, and a few rueful remarks from parents who are suffering through the throes of their kid clicking Refresh every couple of minutes to see where Santa is RIGHT NOW! But the rueful parents will smile at the memory, as will their kids in later years.
As for the Scrooges: Get over yourselves.
Cross Posted from Beregond's Bar.