How do you make a vast, expensive piece of US military infrastructure relevant to the population of the entire world, while projecting American values into regional hotspots? And, bizarrely, how do you deter a nuclear missile strike on America with red-nosed reindeer, while telling a seven-year-old that Santa probably isn’t real?
The answer is the NORAD (North American Air Defense) Santa Tracker, website that uses Google Earth to track Santa Claus as he travels across the world at faster-than-light speeds on Christmas Eve.
Wikipedia puts it drily
“As a publicity move on December 24, 1955, NORAD’s predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), informed the press that CONAD was tracking Santa Claus’s sleigh, adding that “CONAD, Army, Navy and Marine Air Forces will continue to track and guard Santa and his sleigh on his trip to and from the U.S. against possible attack from those who do not believe in Christmas”, and a Christmas Eve tradition was born, known as the “NORAD Tracks Santa” program. Every year on Christmas Eve, “NORAD Tracks Santa” purports to track Santa Claus as he leaves the North Pole and delivers presents to children around the world. Today, NORAD relies on volunteers to make the program possible.”
It’s also a way to project Western Christian stories across the world. I’d love to see the analytics for the site but, whether the locals know it or not, Santa visits everywhere from Afghanistan to Syria. “I am Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and I have come to you!” And there are multiple subtexts, like We can track objects in the air anywhere.
Show me the value
The Track Santa exercise is all about showing that the billions spent on maintaining nuclear missile defence is not a complete waste of money, when millions of Americans live in poverty and despair, with millions more at the edge. In 1958, the NORAD budget was pitched at $5.5 billion a year, so Santa only knows what it costs in today’s dollars.
So when Melania and Donald Trump turned to NORAD’s Track Santa for some Christmas Eve PR, to find some magic in the horror of the military-industrial complex’s 2018, the story arc completes. With the President’s involvement, it had to descend into self-parody and farce. And so it did.
The Track Santa story was planned as a one-off PR piece in 1955, at the height of Cold War paranoia, so it’s fitting that it becomes so relevant again when paranoia is the new thing. It even uses Google Earth! It’s a classic piece of content marketing. The truth around it and how it’s used today is just the next chapter in this story, which will run and run.
Track Santa, Christmas Eve 2019 (assuming no US government shutdown and funding cut) at www.noradsanta.org
About NORAD, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_Aerospace_Defense_Command
Melania Trump fields NORAD Santa Tracker call from American kids – The Boston Globe
NORAD Track Santa screenshot