CNBC Explains: Keeping tabs on Santa

NORAD tracks Santa's sleigh
NORAD tracks Santa's sleigh   

A Colorado Springs Sears Roebuck & Co. misprinted a phone number in 1955, accidentally kicking off a tradition that now involves multiple national governments and the world's biggest tech giants.

The phone number, advertised as a way to call Santa, actually connected local children to the Continental Air Defense Command (CONRAD) Commander-in-Chief's operations hotline. Playing along, the staff at that facility checked its radars and gave updates on St. Nick's location throughout Christmas Eve.

Santa Claus and reindeer
Per Breiehagen | Getty Images

Fast forward to 2014, and the organization—now called North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) when it became a bi-national operation with Canada—operates a sophisticated mapping and tracking resource for global Santa watching. But even though NORAD began the tradition, it now has competitors in the space.

Google operates its own Santa tracking operation, complete with a dedicated Android mobile app and several Christmas-themed games. The Mountain View-based company even offers Santa-watchers a "Gifts Delivered" tracker, although a representative did not immediately respond to requests for comment on how this metric is tabulated.

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For its part, NORAD tracks Santa through a four-tiered system that leverages radar, geo-synchronous satellites, a global camera network, and even a team of fighter jet pilots, according to its website.

NORAD and Google originally worked together on the tracking, but parted ways before Christmas 2012 when the organization opted for a partnership with Microsoft. NORAD now uses Internet Explorer to build a three-dimensional Santa experience platform, and the company's Bing Maps to help power the tracking.

And despite Google's overtures at eclipsing its former partner, NORAD still claims to be the best Santa tracker around—and even claims official status.

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"We're the only organization that has the technology, the qualifications, and the people to do it. And, we love it! NORAD is honored to be Santa's official tracker!" the organization wrote on its website.

Here's NORAD's "official" 2014 tracker: