The volunteer Santa trackers at the North American Aerospace Defense Command are bracing for tens of thousands of calls and emails when their operations center goes live on Christmas Eve.
The military base has been telling anxious children about Santa's whereabouts every year since 1955. That was the year a Colorado Springs newspaper ad invited kids to call Santa on a hotline, but the number had a mistake, and dozens of kids wound up talking to the Continental Aerospace Defense Command, NORAD's predecessor.
The officers on duty played along and began sharing reports on Santa's progress. It's now a deep-rooted tradition at NORAD, a joint U.S.-Canada command that monitors the North American skies and seas.
Last year, NORAD Tracks Santa volunteers answered 80,000 phone calls on Christmas Eve, said Joyce Creech, project leader.
"It's just so precious to hear the little sigh or breathing on the other end, and you realize how nervous they are," Creech said.
"But we've had really heart-wrenching stories as well," she said. "'Can you ask Santa to heal my brother of cancer?' Or, 'Can I get a new pair of shoes? I don't have any.'"
NORAD's Santa updates are just about everywhere — on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, its own website and on television. And this year, there's a new Santa-tracking app for smart phones. The app was downloaded more than 234,000 times from Android Market and iTunes App Store by mid-December, Creech said.
The NORAD Tracks Santa website has had more than 2.2 million unique visitors this year.
But the rows of telephones in the operations center are still the heart of the operation. More than 1,200 volunteers answer calls in shifts, checking big-screen computer monitors indicating Santa's location and passing that along to children, many who seem dumbstruck.
Creech said the rising numbers are probably a reflection of how much people look forward to the season, and how much of a tradition calling NORAD has become for many families.
"You can tell that it really brings people joy, and especially kids," she said.