Like almost every other 2020 holiday, Christmas won’t be quite the same. But there’s one custom we can still count on: Santa and his sleigh will navigate from the North Pole to your rooftop to drop off your gifts (while he wears a face mask).
We know this thanks to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Spring, Colorado, NORAD keeps constant watch over U.S. and Canadian aerospace via global satellite and radar systems. And the same good people have monitored Santa’s journey every Christmas Eve since 1955.
On 24 December, NORAD will again offer its beloved Santa Tracker, revealing up-to-the-second whereabouts of Saint Nick and his sky-high reindeer team as they circle the planet. Anyone can follow the route via a special NORAD website that’s maintained by Microsoft engineers and hosted on Microsoft Azure.
The website also features games, holiday music, movies and more. It’s available in eight languages: English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese and Chinese. In addition, NORAD will use its new, Santa-tracking app and its social media channels to post updates throughout the evening.
And for curious kids who need to know more than the ETA of Father Christmas, NORAD on Thursday launched a new chatbot to respond to timely questions, like: “Is there a big drum of hand sanitizer on board the sleigh?” Answer: “Santa is taking all of the necessary precautions to keep everyone safe as he delivers presents.” NORAD deployed the chatbot by using Azure Bot Service.
“It’s been a tough year and everyone’s looking for a bit of good news,” says NORAD spokesman Preston Schlachter. “We realize that. We want to offer a fun experience for everybody and maybe take their minds off what 2020 has been like.”
The soul of NORAD’s Santa Tracker has long been its Christmas Eve call center, a festive hub usually staffed by some 1,500 headset-wearing volunteers – a mix of civilians in holiday sweaters and service members in full camo.
Every 24 December for years, the group has packed into several conference rooms at Peterson Air Force Base, filling two-hour shifts across a 20-hour day. The work is fast. Each volunteer typically fields about one call per minute from a child somewhere in the world anxious for Santa’s approach. Some volunteers know that excitement personally – as kids, they once called NORAD’s tracker hotline.
Santa-tracking volunteers staff NORAD’s call center on a recent Christmas Eve. This year, on-site volunteers will be fewer and all will be masked. (Photo by Dennis Carlyle/DVIDS)
To maintain safe distances this year, NORAD will host fewer call-center volunteers and wearing a mask will be mandatory, Schlachter says. Callers who can’t reach a live operator via 877-HI-NORAD (877-446-6723) will hear a recorded update on Santa’s location.
But for one long-time volunteer, Christmas won’t be the same unless he’s on the base, answering those urgent calls.
“I absolutely can’t miss it,” says Jim Jenista, a NORAD employee and former Navy pilot and bombardier who has spent nearly 20 Christmas Eves in the call center.
In fact, it has become a Jenista family tradition – and an occasion to dress for the moment.
Since the early 2000s, Jenista, his wife, Karen, and their six children have volunteered for the NORAD phone bank. They arrive in Santa hats and handmade T-shirts, each emblazoned with a specific reindeer. The kids are now grown and live far away. This year, it will just be Jenista and Karen bedecked in their “Cupid” and “Vixen” shirts.
Jim Jenista, right, and his wife, Karen, prepare for their annual night at NORAD’s Santa tracking operation. (Courtesy of Jim Jenista)
“It is so rewarding. That night embodies the innocence, the expectation and the excitement of the holiday and the giving season,” Jenista says. “It’s also the fastest two hours of your life.”
In many ways, Jenista represents NORAD’s unique duality: sober security meets joyful wonder.
The organization was built during the Cold War to help defend North America against missile strikes. Today, however, many kids know NORAD for its softer side: following and safeguarding Santa’s long ride.
Jenista once flew A-6 Intruders and F-14 Tomcats, was on duty at NORAD on 9/11, and he currently helps coordinate U.S. military training exercises. In his free time, however, he hosts a YouTube channel as “Grandpa Silly,” reading from children’s books in his animated style.
“Our motto at NORAD is, ‘We have the watch’,” Jenista says. “That means while you go about your life, just know that we’re here, ready to deter those who might want to do us harm.
“NORAD Tracks Santa is a unique opportunity to share additional mission information with the people who depend on us,” he adds. “We get to talk about radars and intercepts and infrared and satellites – all the equipment and procedures we have to protect the population.”
In both worlds, Jenista says, NORAD seeks to help people sleep better at night.
Jenista speaks with another young caller curious about Santa’s arrival time during a recent Christmas Eve. (Courtesy of Jim Jenista)
And there’s one more similarity between the two endeavors: Operating the Santa Tracker is also a year-round mission.
“It’s not something that just gets started and implemented in December,” says Schlachter, who leads NORAD’s preparation. “As soon as the program is over on Christmas, we are talking about lessons learned and how we can make changes for the following year.”
To sustain and continually reinvent its Santa Tracker, NORAD relies on a large roster of volunteers, from tech companies like Microsoft to local businesses in Colorado Springs that provide call center operators with coffee, water, sandwiches and snacks.
“All of our partners have approached NORAD wanting to be a part of the program, and they all provide those services gratis,” Schlachter says. “We could not have this program without their generosity.”
At Microsoft, more than 25 employees worked on the Santa Tracker website and chatbot throughout the year. That includes Azure and Bing engineers, plus engineers from the FastTrack for Azure team, a technical enablement program that helps with rapid design and deployment of cloud solutions.
In 2019, the Santa Tracker website racked up about 15-million pageviews.
Earlier this year, many of those same employees were busy helping Microsoft customers and partners shift their companies to remote work. Against that pandemic backdrop, Microsoft engineers continued to collaborate with NORAD to update the website and build the chatbot, says Susan Sullivan, a Microsoft senior program manager in Azure engineering.
“The worry might have been: How does a program like this, not on people’s minds in March, April and May, get the traction it needs when everybody is totally distracted?” Sullivan says.
“But individuals saw the Santa Tracker program and enjoyed taking a deep breath of something fresh. It was a nice respite from all of the craziness going on,” she adds.
Sullivan leads Microsoft’s Santa Tracker efforts. That includes holding weekly meetings on Microsoft Teams with Schlachter and others at NORAD. Amid those months of planning and designing, news of the pandemic infused the team with extra urgency to deliver a website that was both memorable and fully reliable, Sullivan says.
It was as if they were protecting a precious piece of Christmas for kids around the world.
“There is an even bigger spirit behind the work this year,” Sullivan says. “I do imagine kids being more engaged online, more interested in the uplifting aspect of Christmas, and families taking the time to really make it special.
“Everything does feel like it’s more important this year,” she adds. “It feels like there’s a bigger opportunity to bring joy.”