WASHINGTON — On Christmas Eve, tens of thousands of children around the globe will gather around their family telephones and computers to track the path of Santa Claus as he makes his rounds delivering gifts on his sleigh led by tiny reindeer.
On the receiving end of the emails, phone calls, mobile "NORAD Santa" applications, website trackers, Facebook followers, Tweets and other social media inquiries into Santa's journey will stand a cadre of 1,250 volunteers to field children's questions at the North American Aerospace Defense Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. NORAD has conducted the Santa tracking program for 58 years, NORAD spokesman Navy Lt. Cmdr. Bill Lewis said.
"The program has its own life," Lewis said of the "NORAD Tracks Santa" appeal that's often handed down from generation to generation. The program's website offers games and other activities for children until Dec. 24 when the tracking Santa tracking map goes live, he said.
When the website goes live, other tracking methods via satellite, ground-based radar and "fighter jets" also spring to life, Lewis said. Sirius radio will also give a live-feed rundown of Santa's journey, he added.
Children, ranging in age from 4 years old to early teens, contact the "NORAD Tracks Santa" call center at 877-446-6723, Lewis said. Typically, the younger ones want to know when Santa will arrive at their houses, where he is at that moment, and what kinds of gifts he has in his sleigh.
Sometimes children want to know how Santa can deliver presents around the world so quickly.
"Santa travels at the speed of starlight," Lewis said. "And he's got the ability to circumnavigate the globe and do his mission with the speed and accuracy that nobody's ever seen."
NORAD routinely performs aerospace warning and aerospace control missions 365 days a year, and that's where the "fighter jets" come into play when Santa approaches his first stops in the Northeastern Canadian provinces, Lewis explained. From there, he goes around North America, then north to south and back and forth along the poles, making deliveries as he goes across each of the time zones, he said.
"[Canada] has the 'pilots' this year who will take on the 'fighter jet' mission, and as Santa makes his approach into North America, [the 'jets'] go up, make sure it's him, verify it on the flight plan that he gave us and let him go on his way," Lewis said.
As Santa makes his rounds, the call center volunteers tell the children they must be asleep between 10 p.m. and midnight before Santa can bring their presents.
"A lot of times when we tell the children what time it is they say, 'That's really close to now!' and you'll hear the phone just drop as they run off to bed," Lewis said.
The military and civilian volunteers work in two-hour shifts from 3 a.m., Mountain Standard Time Dec. 24 to 3 a.m. Christmas day, he said. Responses are available in eight languages — English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese and Chinese.
"In just the call center alone, volunteers do anything from social media posting, pushing out tweets all night, posting on our Facebook page, and answering phones, which is the largest percentage of [the shift], and they answer emails," Lewis said.
During Christmas in 2012, more than 1,250 volunteers in the "NORAD Tracks Santa" call center fielded about 114,000 calls and nearly 11,000 emails from children, NORAD figures show.
The website had 22.3 million visitors from 235 countries and territories across the globe during December, and the program's Facebook page grew to more than 1.2 million followers.
More than 129,000 people also tweeted about Santa's journey on Twitter, and cell phones downloaded 1.5 million applications. Altogether, 25 million people around the world followed Santa's journey in real-time on the web, on their mobile devices, by e-mail and by phone in 2012.
The program began in 1955 when a local newspaper ad directed children to call Santa directly, but the number was a misprint. Instead of reaching Santa, the phone rang through to the crew commander on duty at the Continental Air Defense Operations Center. Since 1958, Lewis said, NORAD has carried on the tradition.
The program is paid for by 55 corporate contributors, Lewis said.
"We have people calling all the time to help," he said. "We just could not do this without the volunteers."
The volunteers sign up for "NORAD Tracks Santa" for a good reason, Lewis said.
"It's the joy of the season in your heart," he said. "When you get the first few phone calls from these kids and hear the innocence in their voices ... if you step back and take it all in, it's incredible."