The Santa Hotline: Starting Saturday, Kids Can Use NORAD to Track Santa’s Position

He tracks whether you've been naughty or nice 364 days out of the year. Now it's your turn.

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For decades, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has committed its resources to tracking Santa Claus around the world; in recent years, impatient youngsters could even monitor Santa’s progress via Google Earth on the official NORAD Tracks Santa website. This weekend, the tradition continues.

The concept dates back to 1955, when Sears, Roebuck and Co. ran a magazine advertisement that featured a picture of Santa himself, accompanied by the text: “Hey, Kiddies! Call me direct … Call me on my private phone and I will talk to you personally any time day or night.” The only problem: the phone number was mistyped in the ad, and the printing error led children to directly ring the operations hotline of the Continental Air Defense Command. The top-secret phone number, which was only supposed to ring in the case of national emergency, was quickly flooded by children curious about their Christmas presents. As the colonel on duty slowly realized what was happening, a surreal p.r. campaign was born: every year since, NORAD staffs its hotline with volunteers who detail Santa’s coordinates to the kids.

(MORE: The Top 10 Bad Santas)

For 2011, an array of organizations have joined forces to make NORAD Tracks Santa happen once again (see a full breakdown of where to find Santa online). Starting at 4 a.m. M.T. Saturday morning — that’s 6 a.m. on the East Coast and midnight Sunday in New Zealand — children can either ring 1-877-HI-NORAD or visit noradsanta.org. The call is free this year, courtesy of both Verizon and Avaya Aura software, which helps to route communications, and like last year, the NORAD Santa website allows visitors to trace Santa’s journey using both Google Maps and Google Earth. New for 2011: an expanded array of options via social networks. This weekend, you can track the bearded one via Facebook, Twitter and even Google+ (just search @noradsanta). There’s also official NORAD Santa apps for both iPhones and Android.

Last year, more than 80,450 calls came in to Colorado’s Peterson Air Force Base during Christmas Eve. That’s in addition to more than 13 million unique visitors searching out noradsanta.org from 231 countries and territories around the world.

In the past few decades, NORAD has made several key observations about the mysterious bearer of gifts. Every year, while he seems to take a different route, his general direction remains the same. NORAD officials tell TIME that he typically pops up on radar over the Pacific Ocean, then travels west from the International Date Line. This means he starts in the summer of New Zealand and Australia, then makes his way north to the snowy landscape of Japan, before cutting across Asia, Africa and Europe. Weather conditions, however, can easily disrupt Santa’s trajectory, leading him to alter his path from the North Pole.

While NewsFeed is the first to admit that tracking Santa can become addictive, experts warn against refreshing the website throughout the night. NORAD has observed Santa coordinating his travel to arrive in cities between 9 p.m. and midnight. If children are still awake, top NORAD observers say, Santa will bypass that house. While he often returns later, there’s no way of telling whether atmospheric conditions may delay Santa elsewhere in the world. NORAD’s best advice for children: Be sure to get to sleep extra early this Christmas Eve.

And Santa, if you didn’t yet get our letter, NewsFeed would like the Star Wars trilogy — the original trilogy — on Blu-ray. That, or a puppy.

(MORE: 2-Minute Biography — Santa Claus)

Snyder is a senior editor at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @thesnydes. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page, on Twitter at @TIME and on TIME’s Tumblr.

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