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The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has been answering children's queries about the whereabouts of Santa Claus since the 1950s. I put them to the test last night.

The history of the NORAD-Santa Tracker tradition is charming enough on its own. According to legend, Sears & Roebuck once mistakenly placed an ad in a newspaper with a phone number to call Santa Claus. The number turned out to belong to CONAD (NORAD's predecessor).

But rather than disappoint the children, CONAD played along, relaying Santa's coordinates during his Christmas Eve globe-trot. The tradition has not only held on through the decades, it's grown more elaborate with time.

Last year, volunteers answered 114,000 phone calls from around the world. The website had 22.3 million unique visitors. NORAD Tracks Santa had 1.2 million followers on Facebook and 129,000 on Twitter.

(This year, some argued that the NORAD operation took its mission a little too far when it announced that Santa would have his own fighter-jet escorts.) 

One NORAD volunteer in particular has made headlines over the past four Christmases: Michelle Obama. This year, the First Lady set aside 30 minutes during the Obama family vacation in Hawaii to field calls from young Santa stalkers. Throughout the night, NORAD volunteers also replied to e-mails and updated the Santa Tracker Twitter account several times an hour. 

To test them out, I enlisted the help of a friend who was celebrating Christmas Eve at a family dinner in California, directly on Santa's flightpath. Anabelle, the youngest family member at the table, was consulted. 

Here's what she wanted to know:  

1. Is Santa in California yet?

2. If not, where is he now?

3. How fast is he going?

4. What kind of cookies does he like?

It was quickly determined that Anabelle (even with help) was too shy to call NORAD and so the e-mail went out at 9:47 p.m. PST. Fourteen minutes later, we had our answer back from the NORAD Tracks Santa Operations Center:

Santa is in South America right now and will be in California in a few hours. I don’t know exactly how fast he is go[i]ng but he has currently delivered over 5 billion gifts! He likes all kinds of cookies (: Merry Christmas Anabelle! P.S. Go to sleep otherwise Santa can’t come.

According to my source, when it comes to bedtime, commands from NORAD work much better than threats of being put in timeout. That may be reason enough to keep the tradition running.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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