Sara, just 13 herself, was surprised but gathered her thoughts quickly. "If I can get ahold of him, I'll try to get the message to him," she told the child.
Sara was one of hundreds of volunteers at NORAD Tracks Santa who answered more than 41,000 calls by Monday afternoon, program spokeswoman Marisa Novobilski said. The calls were on pace to exceed last year's record of 107,000.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command, a joint U.S.-Canada command responsible for protecting the skies over both nations, tracks Santa from its home at Peterson Air Force Base.
NORAD and its predecessor have been fielding Christmas Eve phone calls from children — and a few adults — since 1955. That's when a newspaper ad listed the wrong phone number for kids to call Santa. Callers ended up getting the Continental Air Defense Command, which later became NORAD. CONAD commanders played along, and the ritual has been repeated every year since.
After 57 years, NORAD can predict what most kids will ask. Its 11-page playbook for volunteers includes a list of nearly 20 questions and answers, including how old is Santa (at least 16 centuries) and has Santa ever crashed into anything (no).
But kids still manage to ask the unexpected, including, "Does Santa leave presents for dogs?"
A sampling of anecdotes from the program this year:
The Real Deal • A young boy called to ask if Santa was real.
Air Force Maj. Jamie Humphries, who took the call, said, "I'm 37 years old, and I believe in Santa, and if you believe in him as well, then he must be real."
The boy turned from the phone and yelled to others in the room, "I told you guys he was real!"
Don't Worry, He'll Find You • Glenn Barr took a call from a 10-year-old who wasn't sure if he would be sleeping at his mom's house or his dad's and was worried about whether Santa would find him.
"I told him Santa would know where he was and not to worry," Barr said.
Another child asked if he was on the nice list or the naughty list.
"That's a closely guarded secret, and only Santa knows," Barr replied.
Toys In Heaven • A young boy who called from Missouri asked when Santa would drop off toys in heaven.
His mother got on the line and explained to Jennifer Eckels, who took the call, that the boy's younger sister died this year.
"He kept saying 'in heaven,'" Eckels said. She told him, "I think Santa headed there first thing."
Best Of • Choice questions and comments wound up posted on a flip chart.
"Big sister wanted to add her 3-year-old brother to the naughty list," one read.
"Are there police elves?" said another.
"How much to adopt one of Santa's reindeer?"
International Flavor • NORAD got calls from 220 countries and territories last year, and non-English-speakers called this year as well.
Volunteers who speak other languages get green Santa hats and a placard listing their languages so organizers can find them quickly.
"Need a Spanish speaker!" one organizer called as he rushed out of one of three phone rooms.
He Knows When You're Awake • At NORAD's suggestion, volunteers often tell callers that Santa won't drop off the presents until all the kids in the home are asleep.
"Ohhhhhhh," said an 8-year-old from Illinois, as if trying to digest a brand-new fact.
"I'm going to be asleep by 4 o'clock," said a child from Virginia.