It was 1983, which meant there was still a news wire in the radio station newsroom. I was working Christmas Eve and was keeping watch for breaking new stories. It was a quiet night, except for the recurring item from the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), which was tracking Santa Claus’ flight across North America.
I knew that Santa’s flight was mentioned on newscasts on Christmas Eve, but I had always assumed it was something the radio stations cooked up. I was wrong. Turns out NORAD has tracked Santa Claus’ annual tour to visit good boys and girls since 1955. They still do it, but with modern technology children don’t need to rely on radio station updates. They can follow along in real time on the NORAD website.
If you read the history of how NORAD got into the Santa business you will discover it happened by accident. Which may explain how they can get away with it in the hyper-vigilant United States, where some people are always on the lookout to eradicate any intersection of church and state; when you look at the history of Santa himself, there is no doubt the person on whom the myth is based was a Christian clergyman – Saint Nicholas, a name that has evolved into Santa Claus, who lived more than 1,700 years ago in what is now Turkey.
There is a lot that we get wrong about Santa Claus. Our perceptions are coloured by the Clement Moore poem, “Twas The Night Before Christmas,” and decades of Coca Cola ads. Santa, like so much surrounding Christmas, has been commercialized almost beyond recognition. But, the gift-giving part we get correctly, the stockings too. The historic origins of the story though are not sweetness and light but rather can be seen as a battle against human trafficking. The “children” who hung their stockings and received Saint Nicholas’ gifts were about to be sold because their family had no money for a dowry, making them ineligible for marriage. Their expected fate, slavery, would not have been pretty. Saint Nicholas’ gifts prevented that from happening.
Saint Nicholas’ battle continues today. We don’t often think about it, especially at this time of year, but human trafficking remains a very real problem in our society, and not just at Christmas time. I have great admiration for those who have made this their cause, such as Canadian Member of Parliament Joy Smith, who has spent her career raising awareness of and combatting human trafficking and the organization Defend Dignity, which campaigns against sex trafficking and prostitution.
Saint Nicholas did what he could to fight against the evils of human trafficking, though that wouldn’t have been the label attached to it then. People like Joy Smith are the true heirs of Santa Claus today. No red suit, no reindeer, but working to make a real difference in people’s lives.