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Why Did NORAD Start Tracking Santa?

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On December 24, 1955, the red telephone at the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Operations Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado began ringing.

The red phone meant it was either the Pentagon or CONAD commander in chief General Earle Partridge on the other end, and their reason for calling would probably not be pleasant.

U.S. Air Force Col. Harry Shoup, director of operations at the center, rushed over to the phone and grabbed it.

“Yes, Sir, this is Colonel Shoup,” he barked.

Nothing but silence in response.

“Sir? This is Colonel Shoup,” he said.

Silence again.

“Sir? Can you read me alright?”

Finally, a soft voice on the other end.

“Are you really Santa Claus?” a little girl asked.

Shoup was stunned for a second. This must be a joke, he thought. He looked around the room, expecting to see his men laughing at their prank, but found stony, serious faces all around.

He realized that there was “some screwup on the phones,” and decided to play along.

“Yes, I am,” he answered. “Have you been a good little girl?"

The girl explained to Shoup that she would leave some food out for both Santa and his reindeer and then recited her Christmas list to him. Shoup thanked her for her hospitality, noting that Santa had a lot of traveling to do. How did he get to all those houses in one night, anyway, she asked.

Apparently, that was classified intelligence in Shoup’s mind. “That’s the magic of Christmas,” he said. If anyone asks her about that, he said, she should tell them to stop asking so many questions or Santa would put them on the naughty list.

“That red phone, boy,” Shoup later recalled. “That’s either the old man—the four star [General Partridge]—or the Pentagon. I was all shook up.”

The red phone would keep ringing throughout the night. Not because of Soviet nukes or fighter planes heading toward U.S. soil, but because of a typo.

That day, Shoup would later learn, a local newspaper ran a Sears Roebuck ad inviting kids to contact Santa.

“Hey Kiddies!” the ad read. “Call me on my private phone and I will talk to you personally any time day or night.” The ad listed Santa’s direct line, but the number in the copy was off by a digit. Instead of connecting to the special line Sears set up with a Santa impersonator, kids wound up calling a secret air defense emergency number.

After a few more Santa-related calls, Shoup pulled a few airmen aside and gave them a special assignment. They would answer the phone and give callers—barring the Pentagon, we assume—Santa’s current location as they “tracked” him on their radar.

From that night on, tracking Santa became a yearly tradition, carried on by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) when it replaced CONAD in 1958. A new phone number, separate from the red phone, was established and publicized, and people were invited to call in and find out how close Santa was to their home. Every Christmas Eve, military service members staff phones and email accounts and the Santa Tracker Twitter account to keep kids up to date on Santa’s whereabouts.

Harry Shoup passed away in 2009, remembered by his peers and the public as the “Santa Colonel” who gave a special gift to millions of kids.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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Big Questions
Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?
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Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?
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For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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