Where's Santa? US Air Force trackers standing by

FILE - In this Dec. 24, 2010 file image provided by noradsanta.org, the official NORAD tracking of Santa Claus is shown on a satellite map of the world. NORAD Tracks Santa, the official name of the exercise, began in 1955 when a Colorado Springs newspaper ad invited kids to talk to Santa on a hotline. The phone number had a typo, and dozens of kids wound up dialing the Continental Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, the predecessor to NORAD. Volunteer Santa-trackers at NORAD are bracing for tens of thousands of calls and emails on Christmas Eve this year. (AP Photo/NORAD, via noradsanta.org)

DENVER - The volunteer Santa trackers at the North American Aerospace Defence Command are bracing for tens of thousands of calls and emails when their operations centre 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 Defence 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 centre 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.

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