NORAD volunteers track Santa's progress

Updated at 3 p.m. — PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. (AP) — Volunteers at a Colorado Air Force base monitoring maps showing Santa Claus’ progress are several hours into their goodwill mission and have answered more than 24,000 phone calls from children wanting to know everything from old Saint Nick’s age, to how reindeer fly, to when they can expect their presents.

Phones have been ringing nonstop Monday at Peterson Air Force Base, headquarters of the North American Aerospace Command’s annual Santa-tracking operation.

Dozens of helpers at NORAD are taking calls and tracking Santa’s location on large projection screens. They’re posting updates for nearly 1.2 million Facebook fans and 104,000 Twitter followers.

The maps show Santa is in Pakistan and heading west. He has delivered more than 2 billion presents so far, according to the “NORAD Tracks Santa” website.

Volunteers started taking calls at 4 a.m. Mountain time on Monday and will keep updating until 3 a.m. on Christmas morning.

NORAD Tracks Santa began in 1955 when a newspaper ad listed the wrong phone number for kids to call Santa. Callers ended up getting the Continental Air Defense Command, NORAD’s predecessor, and a tradition was born.

The first shift of Santa trackers started taking calls early Monday at 877-HI-NORAD (877-446-6723), telling children — and some adults — when Santa is due at their house. The last shift won’t end until nearly 24 hours later.

They’ll also post updates online (http://www.noradsanta.org), on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/noradsanta) and Twitter (https://twitter.com/NoradSanta).

NORAD, a joint U.S.-Canada command responsible for protecting the skies over both nations, says its Santa-tracking rite was born of a humble typo in a newspaper ad in 1955.

The ad in a Colorado Springs newspaper invited children to call Santa but inadvertently listed the phone number for the Continental Air Defense Command, NORAD’s predecessor, also based in Colorado Springs.

CONAD officers played along, and word spread that this Cold War military command charged with guarding the U.S. against an attack by the Soviet Union was also telling kids where Santa was.

Since then, NORAD Tracks Santa has gone global, progressing through bulletins on AM radios and black-and-white TVs to updates on Facebook, Twitter and smartphone aps.

Last year, volunteers answered almost 102,000 calls, nearly 25 percent more than the previous year. They also answered more than 7,700 emails (noradtrackssanta(at)outlook.com).

The NORAD Tracks Santa website attracted 18.9 million unique visitors from 220 countries and territories during December 2011.

This year, the program has more than 1 million likes on Facebook and more than 114,000 followers on Twitter days before the tracking operation got under way.

Following is a sampling of calls received at the base:

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GIFTS IN HEAVEN: One little boy from Missouri phoned in to ask what time Santa delivered toys to heaven, said volunteer Jennifer Eckels, who took the call. The boy’s mother got on the line to explain that his sister had died this year.

“I think Santa headed there first,” Eckels told him.

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IS HE THERE YET?: James Solano took a call from a young girl and her father in Bangkok, asking when Santa would arrive. Solano checked the map and said it wouldn’t be long.

“The dad was saying, ‘We’ve got to get to bed soon,’” said Solano, an Army colonel.

“It was kind of neat,” he said. “They were very thrilled.”

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SANTA KNOWS: Glenn Barr took a call from a 10-year-old who wasn’t sure if he would be sleeping at his mom’s house or his dad’s and was worried about whether Santa would find him.

“I told him Santa would know where he was and not to worry,” Barr said.

Another child asked if he was on the nice list or the naughty list.

“That’s a closely guarded secret, and only Santa knows,” Barr replied.

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THE REAL DEAL: A young boy called to ask if Santa was real.

Air Force Maj. Jamie Humphries, who took the call, said, “I’m 37 years old, and I believe in Santa, and if you believe in him as well, then he must be real.”

The boy turned from the phone and yelled to others in the room, “I told you guys he was real!”

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Follow Dan Elliott at http://twitter.com/DanElliottAP