It was 1955, and Christmas was approaching, and Sears had a new idea for a yuletide gimmick. In local newspapers, the department store placed ads ... on behalf of Santa himself.
"HEY, KIDDIES!" the ad read, in a greeting that would seem creepy only in retrospect. "Call me on my private phone and I will talk to you personally any time day or night."
The ads then listed local numbers for area children to call to get some one-on-one Kringle time. Which must have seemed, if you were a kid back then, pretty amazing. A direct line to St. Nick! Kids could, finally, bypass the middlemen that stood between them and their gifts—the Post Office, their parents—and go directly to the source. And, even more directly, to that source's enormous bag of loot. You can almost hear the Ralphie Parker voice-over.
Like many innovations, though, Sears's frictionless Santa scheme found itself with an unforeseen problem. In the ad the company had placed in the local paper in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Sears had listed Santa's number as ME 2-6681. Which, according to Snopes, contained a typo: It was one digit off of the intended one. The number Sears had ended up printing and distributing to the city's citizens? The one for, as it happened, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD)—the predecessor of NORAD—which, like Santa, specialized in aeronautics. And which, unlike Santa, was based in Colorado Springs.
Suddenly, on Christmas Eve, phone calls intended for St. Nick were being received on a top-secret NORAD line—a line that was usually reserved for crises (which, back then, pretty much meant "Russians attacking"). When the first call came in, Colonel Harry Shoup, the officer on duty at CONAD, picked up the phone.
"Yes, Sir, this is Colonel Shoup."
As Mentalfloss puts it, the colonel received no reply—just silence.
“Sir? This is Colonel Shoup,” he said again.
“Sir?" Shoup was probably, at this point, trying not to panic. Silence on the crisis line. "Can you read me alright?”
Finally, the caller spoke up. It was not a commanding officer. It was ... a little girl. And she was confused, too. "Are you really Santa Claus?" she asked.
Shoup, at that point, demanded to know who was calling, Terri Van Keuren, his daughter, remembers. He was brusque. This didn't make any sense.
"The little voice is now crying," Van Keuren recalls.
The voice didn't give up, though. "Is this one of Santa's elves, then?"
It must be a prank, Shoup thought. But, as he scanned the room, the "stony, serious faces" of his fellow men suggested otherwise. Then it occurred to him: Lines must have, literally, gotten crossed. There must have been "some screwup on the phones."
And then Shoup made a fateful, delightful decision: He decided to play along.
“Yes, I am,” he answered the caller, be-elfing himself. “Have you been a good little girl?"
More calls began coming in. Shoup grabbed an airman who happened to be standing nearby and told him to answer the calls, too. The direction Shoup gave, as Van Keuren remembers the story? "Just pretend you're Santa.'"
Soon, the pretending evolved: The CONAD staff were providing the calling children not just with bowlful-of-jelly replies to their inquiries, but also with informational updates about Santa's progress as he made his way around the world. As NORAD's Santa site puts it: "A tradition was born."