In this Dec. 24, 2010 file photo, Air Force Lt. Col. David Hanson, of Chicago, takes a phone call from a child in Florida at the NORAD Santa Tracking Operations Center at Peterson Air Force Base near Colorado Springs, Colo. (Ed Andrieski/AP)

Intel can confirm that Jack Frost and the Abominable Snowman will not be a threat.”

You’ve probably heard that the military “tracks” Santa’s route each Christmas Eve. The North American Aerospace Defense Command, better known as NORAD, checks its radar “closely for indications of Santa Claus leaving the North Pole every holiday season,” according to the “Official NORAD Santa Tracker” website. The annual tradition goes back to 1955 when a Sears Roebuck & Co. advertisement “misprinted the telephone number for children to call Santa” and instead, listed the number to NORAD’s predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD). Ever since, kids have been able to call their hotline and get radar “updates on Santa’s location” as he makes his way south from the North Pole. The Santa Tracking program migrated over to the Internet in 1998.

Kids have enough anxiety on Christmas Eve … They don’t need to be fretting over whether Santa might be blown to smithereens by the North Koreans.

This year, the NORAD Santa Tracker website has all kinds of bells and whistles, as well as animations, movies and video games. Santa also gets a faux “fighter jet escort.” A video NORAD released in November [video below] resembles a trailer for a big budget Hollywood movie. This “NORAD Tracks Santa Command Video” depicts screen shots of fancy equipment — satellites, aircraft carriers, radar screens — as voices laden with phony militaristic jargon declare they will prevent “Big Red One” from straying into restricted air space and protect him from unspecified threats. “Santa Cams” supposedly installed around the world capture images and videos of the jolly old elf en route.

Not to be outdone, Google has its own “Santa Tracker” app, where good and bad kids can plot Kris Kringle’s journey on maps of the entire world, and even get a count of the number of presents delivered. Users can also download tracking apps for use on tablets and mobile devices.

This Santa-tracking idea, especially this year’s fighter jet twist, hasn’t been without controversy. Some child advocates have objected that the NORAD Santa Tracker associates Christmas with war. Others gripe that this program might be the military’s subversive way to market to kids. There’s also the argument that children shouldn’t have to worry about Santa being vulnerable to attack. Kids have enough anxiety on Christmas Eve: Have I been good enough? Will Santa bring me the new XBox One console? They don’t need to be fretting over whether Santa might be blown to smithereens by the North Koreans.

I agree with these critics and their concerns. But I’m not a fan of these online Santa trackers for another reason: Real-time digital imagery of Santa and his route, or calculations of the loot he’s delivered, take the imagination out of Christmas.

In years past, Santa was a non-corporal force. Sure, there were pictures of him in books, or you might catch a glimpse of him down at the mall. Kids might write him a letter and, with parental and/or Postal Service help, they’d get a reply. But largely, St. Nick was a mystery. You couldn’t really see him, let alone track him. No one knew exactly where in the North Pole he lived. The admittedly impossible concept of him delivering presents to millions of kids world-wide, via a flying reindeer-driven sleigh, was always a bit of a head-scratcher.

How did Santa do it? Magic, of course.

Real-time digital imagery of Santa and his route, or calculations of the loot he’s delivered, take the imagination out of Christmas.

But with Santa as real-time Internet presence, his power is diminished. He’s been reduced to just another pixel, just another video game. If kids can “see” his route on the screens of iPads as they drift off to sleep, what’s left for their minds to imagine? There’s no magic in Google Earth. Further dispelling the enchantment, NORAD’s site also lists “Sleigh Technical Data” — e.g. “Length: 75 cc (candy canes) / 150 lp (lollipops) — and explains how Santa visits all those chimneys in one night: “The only logical conclusion is that Santa somehow functions within his own time-space continuum.”

The power of myth and folklore, or religious belief for that matter, has always relied on our not knowing things with certainty. What we could not see, our minds imagined. We invented stories to explain the unexplainable.

Santa has always lived in our heads and hearts. And we don’t need an app for that.  TWEET

So this Christmas Eve, parents beware, all through the house. As your creatures are stirring, or are glued to some Santa Tracker screen before bed, visions of more than just sugar-plums might be dancing in their heads. There might also be nightmares of Grumman F-14 Tomcats and AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles.

Merry Christmas, kids.


The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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