The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is the authority on Santa's precise location at any given time. NORAD's online Santa Tracker follows St. Nick around the globe, pinpointing his progress from chimney to chimney for everyone with an Internet connection.

But, really, the whole Santa Tracker shebang was born out of a mistake that played out nearly 60 years ago.

In 1955, Sears had an innovative idea for a Christmastime ploy to get kids involved in the holidays. Essentially, the company published a series of newspaper ads with phone numbers for kids to call to speak directly to Santa at the North Pole. The problem, though, was that the Colorado Springs version of the ad contained a typo in the number and, instead, connected children with the military crisis hotline at CONAD (NORAD's predecessor).

On Christmas Eve of that year, Colonel Shoup picked up the phone and, evenutally, realized that their was a crying little girl on the other line, upset that she couldn't speak to Santa.

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." 

The tradition has evolved, slightly, since then. In 1958, when NORAD was formed, it continued to offer a "Santa tracking" service to anyone who called in—especially on December 24. And the tracking continues. The people who answer the calls now include "countless numbers of Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps personnel," Van Keuren notes. As of 2009, those volunteers were handling more than 12,000 e-mails and more than 70,000 telephone calls from more than 200 countries and territories. In 2011, Michelle Obama answered calls on behalf of the North Pole NORAD.

More than that, though, over at NORAD's Santa Tracker site, you can monitor the jolly guy's progress as he makes his way around the Earth on his busiest night of the year.

Sometimes it's the little things, you guys. [The Atlantic]