DENVER — The government may be partially shut down, but that won’t stop hundreds of volunteers dressed in Christmas hats and military uniforms Monday from taking calls from children around the world who want to know when Santa will be coming.

The military says the NORAD Tracks Santa won’t be affected by the government shutdown because it is run by volunteers at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado and is funded by the Department of Defense’s budget that was approved earlier this year.

Now in its 63rd year, the Santa tracker became a Christmas Eve tradition after a mistaken phone call to the Continental Air Defense Command in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1955. CONAD, as it was known, had the serious job of monitoring a far-flung radar network for any sign of a nuclear attack on the United States.

When Col. Harry Shoup picked up the phone that day, he found himself talking not to a military general, but to a child who wanted to speak to Santa Claus. A Colorado Springs newspaper had run an ad inviting kids to call Santa but mistakenly listed the hotline number.

Shoup figured out what had happened and played along. The tradition has since mushroomed into an elaborate operation that attracts tens of thousands of calls every year.

For the 1,500 civilian and military volunteers who will answer the phones for kids calling 1-877-HI-NORAD, it infuses the holiday with childlike wonder.

“They’re all really sweet, small voices,” said Madison Hill, a volunteer who helped answer the phones in two previous years.

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

The North American Aerospace Defense Command – a joint U.S.-Canadian operation based in Colorado Springs that protects the skies over both countries – has taken over the Santa tracker since the tradition started. The military command center embraced and expanded the Santa-tracking mission and has been rewarded with a bounty of goodwill and good publicity.

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.

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