PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. —Some kids who call NORAD on Christmas Eve to find out where Santa is hang up as soon as a volunteer answers the phone — probably because they expected a recording and not a real person, veteran Santa trackers say.
There were some especially awed kids Friday, when one of the people answering the phone was first lady Michelle Obama.
A telephone link from Hawaii, where the Obamas are on vacation, allowed her to pitch in with volunteers at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., who were answering phone calls and e-mails for the North American Aerospace Defense Command's Santa-tracking program.
The White House said she took calls for 40 minutes and spoke with children from at least a dozen families.
It's believed to be the first time in the 55-year history of the event that a first lady joined in, said Jamie Graybeal, NORAD'S deputy chief of staff for communications.
NORAD Tracks Santa, the official name of the program, began in 1955 when a Colorado Springs newspaper ad invited kids to talk to Santa on a hotline. The phone number had a typo, and dozens of kids wound up dialing the Continental Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, the predecessor to NORAD.
The officers on duty played along and began passing along reports on Santa's progress. It's now a cherished ritual at NORAD, a joint U.S.-Canada command that monitors the North American skies and seas from a control center at Peterson.
"It's really ingrained in the NORAD psyche and culture," said Canadian Forces Lt. Gen. Marcel Duval, the deputy commander of NORAD, who pitches in to field French- language calls on Christmas Eve. "It's a goodwill gesture from all of us, on our time off, to all the kids on the planet."
Duval is careful to say that tracking Santa doesn't interfere with the work of watching out for enemy threats to the North American continent.
Last year, NORAD Tracks Santa answered 74,000 calls and 3,500 e-mails, and organizers expect to top that this year.
Although the program is aimed at children, the volunteers answering the phones have a welcome bit of news for parents, too: St. Nick won't stop at homes unless all the kids are asleep.
Volunteer Liz Anderson said that when she tells kids that, she will sometimes hear parents say, "See! I told you."
On Friday, volunteers answered calls and e-mails in two conference rooms in a building not far from NORAD's headquarters. In a separate room, a three-member team fired out tweets and Facebook updates, checking against a schedule marked with a secrecy warning that said "Santa's Eye Only."