Perhaps you’ve heard the legend of Harry Shoup. The gruff Air Force colonel stood watch on December night 60 years ago, in a secure bunker at Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), guarding against a nuclear strike. On his desk sat the Red Phone, connecting him directly to the four-star general at Strategic Air Command. Suddenly, the phone rang.

Colonel Shoup answered. “Is this Santa Claus?” asked a child’s voice. Rather than break a child’s heart, Colonel Shoup played along. Sears, it turned out, had published a newspaper ad, with a jolly Saint Nick urging, “Call me on my private phone, and I will talk to you personally.” Because of a typo, the ad accidentally listed the number for the Red Phone. As calls kept pouring in, Colonel Shoup assigned his staff to play Santa. They began to provide children with updates on the location of Santa’s sleigh. And the NORAD Santa Tracker was born.

The inspirational holiday tale is retold by countless outlets each December. If it had been the plot of a Capra film, The New York Times’ Michael Beschloss wrote last week, “moviegoers might have thought the story contrived.” It sounds too good to be true. And, as it happens, it almost certainly is.

The first clue is that the Santa Tracker takes its place in a long military tradition of keeping track of Saint Nick, using press releases to cultivate favorable coverage. At the height of the Second World War, Eisenhower’s headquarters put out a release offering “Christmas guidance” to war correspondents.  It confirmed that “a new North Pole Command has been formed,” that “Santa Claus is directing operations,” and that “he has under his command a small army of gnomes.” The censors, though, suppressed the location of Santa’s headquarters, directed that his delivery methods be described only as employing “secret devices” or “special scientific techniques,” and proscribed “any mention of radar or speculation on the purpose of reindeer antennae.”

In 1948, as the Cold War replaced the Second World War, it was the State Department that dispatched a diplomatic cable to Kris Kringle, communicating “united desire for peace on earth,” and authorizing him to communicate this “to all men, using herald angels if supplemental personnel imperative.” Perhaps that seemed too utopian a wish, at the height of the Berlin Airlift. The cable took pains to specify: “Danger vetoes, blockades, transportation-delays appears remote.” One day a year, it was nice to imagine a world in which that were actually true.

The Air Force, newly independent of the Army, was quick to get in on the act. It released its first seasonal communiqué in 1948, reporting that its “early warning radar net to the north” had detected “one unidentified sleigh, powered by eight reindeer, at 14,000 feet, heading 180 degrees.” The Associated Press duly passed it along.

By the 1950s, the nation stood on edge, worried that with little notice, the entire country might be incinerated in a nuclear attack. CONAD’s director of combat operations, Colonel Harry W. Shoup, had a flair for public relations. He won a citation for quelling noise complaints from communities adjacent to a base he commanded by explaining “that the noise from friendly jets isn’t as bad as bombs from enemy jets could be.” In October of 1955, he told reporters that Russian jets were capable of reaching any point in the continental United States in 9 to 12 hours. His point, presumably, was to stress the vital importance of CONAD’s role, standing vigilant against Soviet bombers crossing over the North Pole en route to the United States.

It was Shoup who manned the consoles in the fall of 1955. And on November 30, he was sitting at his desk when an ordinary phone rang. (It wasn’t a Red Phone, which ran through a dedicated, lead-encased cable. The whole point of a direct connection between CONAD to SAC was to ensure that the line would remain open, operational, and entirely secure; it wasn’t connected to a public exchange.)

A newspaper account unearthed by Gizmodo’s Matt Novak tells earliest known version of the story. A child trying to dial Santa on the Sears hotline instead dialed an unlisted phone at CONAD, “by reversing two digits.” Colonel Shoup “answered much more roughly than he should—considering the season: ‘There may be a guy named Santa Claus at the North Pole, but he’s not the one I worry about coming from that direction.’”

Bah, humbug!

There was no flood of calls that first year, because to reach CONAD, two particular digits had to be reversed. A few weeks later, when Shoup’s staff drew a flying Santa on the board for tracking unidentified aircraft, he spotted an opportunity. He had his public-relations officer, Colonel Barney Oldfield, tell the wire services that CONAD was tracking Santa, touting its cutting-edge capabilities, but with a rather martial take on the Christmas spirit:

CONAD, Army, Navy and Marine Air Forces will continue to track and guard Santa and his sleigh on his trip to and from the U.S. against possible attack from those who do not believe in Christmas.

The press ate it up. The next fall, as CONAD sought to boost its profile, Oldfield asked Shoup to repeat his Santa-tracking stunt. Shoup reportedly demurred, until Oldfield told him that the AP and UPI had already called. That was enough to tip the balance.

In subsequent years, the public-relations campaign grew more elaborate. By Christmas of 1960, the expanded North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) was posting regular updates from its northern command post in St. Hubert, Quebec, on the flight of one “S. Claus,” listed as “undoubtedly friendly.” Injecting a little drama into the evening, NORAD reported the heavily laden flight making an emergency landing on the ice of Hudson Bay. Canadian fighter interceptors swooped in to discover Santa tending to Dancer’s injured front foot. With the reindeer bandaged, Santa rejoined his fighter escort and completed his rounds.

As the stunts grew more elaborate, so too did Colonel Shoup’s story. In 1961, he still claimed that the number in the Sears Ad was a single digit different from one of the unlisted lines at the Combat Operations Center. “Inevitably, one childish finger missed by one digit,” he told the local Colorado Springs Gazette. But Shoup no longer remembered himself as a Grinch. When he picked up, he told the reporter, he heard a voice ask, “Are you one of Santa’s helpers?” He answered, “One of what?” assuming an airman was playing a trick on him. Then, he claimed, he figured out what was going on. “I’m no helper,” he remembered saying. “I am Santa Claus.”

In later years, Shoup and his family offered ever-more elaborate versions of his tale. The unlisted line became the Red Phone. It wasn’t a misdialed number, but a fateful misprint. It wasn’t one child, but a flood of calls. In the process, the story became a favorite holiday tale, of tough soldiers finding a soft spot in their hearts, and sustaining the hopes and dreams of countless children.

But, from the first, there's been another side to this tale. Air defense is expensive, complicated, and not terribly glamorous. It competes with a host of other defense functions for scarce funds. Years before Harry Shoup answered a wrong number, the Air Force was already using Santa to sell the public on the utility of its early warning radar and vectored fighter interceptors. Shoup helped the Air Force figure out how to do this more effectively. So effectively, in fact, that his commanders turned his stunt into an annual campaign.

The Cold War is long over. NORAD is a shadow of its former self. But the legend of Harry Shoup endures, retold each December by a press eager to offer heart-warming stories to a public eager to consume them.  

And along the way, something genuinely heart-warming happened. What began as a cynical Cold War public-relations campaign became something more. NORAD published an actual phone number, and encouraged children to call in. Military personnel gave their own time to answer those calls. Today, more than 1,200 men and women in uniform volunteer to staff the lines. Last year alone, NORAD answered more than a hundred thousand calls, and logged almost 20 million visits to its Santa Tracker.

The story was told so often, and so many believed in it, that it created its own reality. Tough soldiers really did find soft spots in their hearts, and sustained the hopes and dreams of countless children. Like the tale of Santa Claus itself, it spoke to the collective willingness to suspend disbelief and embrace the dream of a kinder, gentler world, at least for one night a year. And a new holiday tradition was born.