PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. - Volunteers at a U.S. Air Force base monitoring maps showing Santa Claus' progress were several hours into their goodwill mission Monday and had answered more than 24,000 phone calls from children wanting to know everything from Saint Nick's age to how reindeer fly.
Oh, and when are the presents coming?
Phones were ringing nonstop at Peterson Air Force Base, headquarters of the North American Aerospace Command's annual Santa-tracking operation.
Dozens of helpers at NORAD were tracking Santa's location on large projection screens. They're posting updates for nearly 1.2 million Facebook fans and 104,000 Twitter followers.
The maps showed Santa was in Pakistan and heading west. He had delivered more than 2 billion presents so far, according to the "NORAD Tracks Santa" website.
NORAD, a joint U.S.-Canada command responsible for protecting the skies over both nations, says its Santa-tracking rite was born of a humble typo in a newspaper ad in 1955.
The ad in a Colorado Springs newspaper invited children to call Santa but inadvertently listed the phone number for the Continental Air Defence Command, NORAD's predecessor, also based in Colorado Springs.
CONAD officers played along, and word spread that this Cold War military command charged with guarding the U.S. against an attack by the Soviet Union was also telling kids where Santa was.
Since then, NORAD Tracks Santa has gone global, progressing through bulletins on AM radios and black-and-white TVs to updates on Facebook, Twitter and smartphone aps.
Last year, volunteers answered almost 102,000 calls, nearly 25 per cent more than the previous year. They also answered more than 7,700 emails (noradtrackssanta(at)outlook.com).
The NORAD Tracks Santa website attracted 18.9 million unique visitors from 220 countries and territories during December 2011.
This year, the program had more than 1 million likes on Facebook and nearly 97,000 followers on Twitter days before the tracking operation got under way.
"How old is Santa?" one caller asked. The answer to that one is in the FAQs that NORAD hands out to volunteers: "It's hard to know for sure, but NORAD intelligence indicates Santa is at least 16 centuries old."
Other questions required the volunteers to think fast:
"How do reindeer fly?"
"How many elves does Santa have?"
"Does Santa leave presents for dogs?"
One little boy phoned in to ask what time Santa delivered toys to heaven, said volunteer Jennifer Eckels, who took the call. The boy's mother got on the line to explain that his sister had died this year.
"I think Santa headed there first," Eckels told him.
NORAD suggested that its volunteers tell callers that Santa won't drop off the presents until all the kids in the home are asleep. The response depends on the caller's age.
"Ohhhhhhh," said an 8-year-old, as if trying to digest a brand-new fact.
"Thank you so much for that information," said a grateful mom.
Glenn Barr took a call from a 10-year-old who wasn't sure if he would be sleeping at his mom's house or his dad's and was worried about whether Santa would find him.
"I told him Santa would know where he was and not to worry," Barr said.
A young boy called to ask if Santa was real.
Air Force Maj. Jamie Humphries, who took the call, said, "I'm 37 years old, and I believe in Santa, and if you believe in him as well, then he must be real."
The boy turned from the phone and yelled to others in the room, "I told you guys he was real!"
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