Santa tracker? NORAD and Google Maps show the way

Online Santa trackers get fancy this year with 3D animations, video, and live interactive maps.

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    The Santa tracker from Norad spotted him over Bangladesh, on his way to Burma (Myanmar)
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Santa's in Burma (Myanmar)! Or wait – now the Taj Mahal. Pakistan is next.

Eager youngsters (and the young at heart) can track the jolly guy online in many formats this year – with the help of Google Maps, Google Earth, Facebook, Twitter, and, of course, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the US–Canadian military cooperative that watches over the skies of North America year-round.

The Google Maps version, accessible here, gives realtime updates of where Santa was last spotted, including a countdown to where he's going next. Visitors can zoom in on the locations he's already visited to watch videos narrated by Googlers and US servicemen and women, and read Wikipedia articles about the various cities on his make-believe journey.

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For a more immersive experience, trackers can use the Google Earth browser plugin to follow Santa on his journey in 3D. Social networking fans can catch up on operations at the NORAD Tracks Santa center by visiting its page on Facebook or by following their updates on Twitter.

For a less Webby (and more authentic?) experience, US-based Santa trackers can reach NORAD at a toll-free number set up by Verizon: 1-877-HI-NORAD. Those outside the US can call 719-556-5211, but international calling rates will apply. More than 1,200 Colorado Springs-based volunteers will be manning the phones until midnight Eastern time on Christmas Day, providing callers with Santa's current location. In 2008, volunteers fielded nearly 74,000 calls.

The annual rite of tracking Santa, which started, strangely enough, with a misprint in a 1955 Colorado Springs Sears Roebuck advertisement, has blossomed over more than 50 years into a worldwide phenomenon:

The tradition began in 1955 after a Colorado Springs-based Sears Roebuck & Co. advertisement for children to call Santa misprinted the telephone number. Instead of reaching Santa, the phone number put kids through to the CONAD Commander-in-Chief's operations "hotline." The Director of Operations at the time, Colonel Harry Shoup, had his staff check the radar for indications of Santa making his way south from the North Pole. Children who called were given updates on his location, and a tradition was born.

Col. Shoup, who passed on in March of this year, recalls how the tradition started in an audio interview at NORAD's Santa Tracker site.

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