Do you 'still' believe in Santa? Trump's approach to a child's Christmas

The NORAD tradition began in 1955 when an error in an ad sent callers to inquire about Santa at a military facility in Colorado.

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By Phil Helsel

Most presidents follow a traditional script when answering Christmas Eve calls from children calling NORAD about the whereabouts of Santa Claus. Donald Trump, true to form, did things his own way.

Children who make those calls aren't usually on the fence about their belief in Santa. But when a 7-year-old named Collman called on Monday night, Trump pushed the child's credulity to the limit.

“Are you still a believer in Santa?” Trump asked. The president listened for a moment and then added, “Because at 7, it’s marginal, right?”

History did not record Collman's response. But something she said apparently amused Trump, who chuckled as he listened. (Thousands of people on social media were less amused, worried that children — presumably under 7 — would have their beliefs punctured by a president who often appears to enjoy shattering illusions.)

The Charleston Post & Courier tracked down Collman on Tuesday. She told the publication that she believes in Santa and had never heard the word "marginal" before. If she could ask the president any additional question, she said she'd ask him about whether he had any children of his own.

"I’ve honestly never heard of them or seen any of them so I was wondering," she said.

As it was, Collman was lucky to have gotten through, considering that much of the government is shut down because of a dispute between Trump and Congress over his demand for a border wall. But NORAD, short for North American Aerospace Defense Command, tweeted Friday that it would still track Santa's flight across the globe as it has done for more than six decades.

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The government went into a partial shutdown at midnight on that day, after Congress failed to reach a stopgap funding deal. The shutdown, which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of federal employees being either furloughed or forced to work without immediate pay, could stretch into Thursday or longer.

First lady Melania Trump was heard asking a caller whether they had been good and wishing the child a merry Christmas. She told another child that Santa "is still far away" but was on his way to their home.

She later tweeted that helping children track Santa “is becoming one of my favorite traditions!”

The NORAD Santa tracking tradition began in 1955, when a newspaper printed the incorrect number in an ad and children called the Continental Air Defense Command Operations Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Col. Harry Shoup was on duty that night, and had operators report the location of Santa to the numerous callers, according to NORAD. The tradition was carried on when CONAD became NORAD after that agency was formed in 1958, the military said.

When Shoup took the first call, he assumed it was from the Pentagon or a general. Instead, he recalled in a interview with NORAD, a child's voice asked: "Are you really Santa Claus?"

"I said, 'Yes, I am, have you been a good little girl?'" he recalled. "She had a big long list of what she wanted ... I just get thrills thinking about it!"

Shoup died in 2009. His daughter, Terri Van Keuren, told NPR's Story Corps in 2014 that her father had two phones on his desk, including a red one. "Only a four-star general at the Pentagon and my dad had the number," she said.

"This was the '50s, this was the Cold War, and he would have been the first one to know if there was an attack on the United States," Shoup's son, Rick, said in the NPR program.

In this Dec. 24, 2014, file photo, Canadian Brig. Gen. Guy Hamel, NORAD and USNORTHCOM Deputy Director of Policy, Strategy, and Plans, joins other volunteers taking phone calls from children around the world asking where Santa is at the North American Aerospace Defense Command, at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.AP

Trump on Monday was heard asking a caller from Indiana "what's Santa going to get you for Christmas?" and after a pause, telling the caller "that’s fantastic!" and to have a great Christmas.

Every year, one colonel is assigned the task of overseeing NORAD volunteers who track Santa for children around the world.

Around 1,500 civilian and military volunteers who will answer the phones for kids calling 1-877-HI-NORAD. Now, with the internet, Santa's journey is also posted online (As of this writing, Santa and his sleigh were over Cayenne, French Guiana).

"They're all really sweet, small voices," Madison Hill, a volunteer who helped answer the phones in two previous years, told the Associated Press.

"I had a little girl tell me good night instead of goodbye," she said. "It's really sweet."

Last year, NORAD Tracks Santa drew 126,000 phone calls, 18 million website hits, 1.8 million followers on Facebook and 179,000 more on Twitter.

CORRECTION: (Dec. 25, 2018, 4:43 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of the 7-year-old who spoke to Trump and also incorrectly identified her as a boy. Her first name is Collman, not Coleman.

Associated Press and Allan Smith contributed.