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December 18, 2013

The magic of Christmas: The bell still rings for those who believe

By Cari DeLamielleure-Scott
C & G Staff Writer

On Christmas Eve, children across the world will scan the sky for a glimpse of Santa’s sleigh and reindeer. That pure innocence and joy are a reminder of the magic of Christmas and the mystery behind believing in the unseen. While Santa makes appearances prior to Christmas Eve, catching him munching on cookies in your living room or petting his reindeer before taking off to the next house can be a difficult task, but that doesn’t stop children from believing and knowing that Old Saint Nick exists.

Santa Claus is known by many names. In Belgium, he is dubbed Père Noël. In Italy, he is known as Babbo Natale. Whether he is called one of those names or the traditional Kris Kringle, one thing is consistent across the world — his magic takes him across the globe in a single night.

One organization has made it easier to track Santa on Christmas Eve — the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD. Tracking Santa dates back to 1955, when a Colorado Springs, Colo., newspaper printed the wrong phone number in an advertisement. Instead of reaching Santa Claus directly, residents called what was then the Continental Air Defense Command.

“Everyone started calling, and the colonel on duty, instead of hanging up, he had his operators … report where Santa was to all the children calling in,” said Ruth Castro, U.S. Army captain and NORAD public affairs officer.

Since then, NORAD has become the official Santa tracker in North America, and people can either visit www.noradsanta.org or call 877-HI-NORAD to locate Santa and pinpoint the time he stops in their area. Castro said NORAD also teams up with Santa annually to provide him with a military escort through North America.

“The most recent news release we sent out was that Canada had announced the names of the pilots that are going to be escorting Santa. On the 24th, we can specifically tell you where he is, but we don’t know his route beforehand,” Castro said. According to the press release, four CF-18 fighter pilots were selected for the high-profile job.

Following Christmas, NORAD analyzes the website to see how many unique visitors around the world track Santa. Last year, NORAD had approximately 22.3 million unique website visitors, or visitors from different IP addresses, Dec. 1-30, Castro said.

Though the spirit of Christmas is global, local communities like Clinton Township and Grosse Pointe bring Father Christmas to children through their annual Polar Express rides.

Now taking a train to the North Pole might seem a little out of reach, but in Clinton Township, the Parks and Recreation Department re-creates the relaxed feeling of the popular “The Polar Express” book, as believers of all ages board an antique train run by the Michigan Transit Museum.

About 16 years ago, the Michigan Transit Museum asked to use the park as a boarding station, and Parks and Recreation made a deal, if they would re-create “The Polar Express” yearly, said Linda Walker, recreation director.
Authenticity is just as important to Parks and Recreation as the spirit of believing, and that is why the organization acts out almost every part of the book, down to the hot chocolate that is “as thick and rich as melted chocolate bars,” as the book says.

Prior to 9/11, Clinton’s Holiday Express journeyed around Selfridge Air National Guard Base, but now it travels to the base gate and downtown Mount Clemens. Kids are encouraged to bring their copy of “The Polar Express” and read along as the story is played over a speaker, creating a living story.

Knowing where children are at all times somehow, Walker said, Santa finds the train and bursts into the car, giving every child a special bell that rings for only those who believe. Children are also given an engineer hat and a wooden train whistle as a souvenir of their adventure.

Registration for the Holiday Express fills rapidly, and because it is such a popular event, Parks and Recreation begins registering residents every September.

Grosse Pointe Parks and Recreation also journeys through author Chris Van Allsburg’s masterpiece, on a 30-minute bus ride.

Starting from the Community Center, attendees board a bus and search for the best lights while listening to “The Polar Express” audiobook, said Nicole Byron, recreation supervisor. Once they return from the ride, children have the opportunity to enjoy hot chocolate and cookies with Santa.

“What’s very nice about this event is, because there are only 18 people per bus, normally only half the people are kids. So, you get a private time with Santa for 30 minutes,” Byron said. Every child also receives a special silver bell from Santa.

Stepping into the spirit of giving, every year Macy’s teams with Make-A-Wish to not only send letters to Santa, but to grant wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions. The story behind the Macy’s “Believe” campaign dates back to 1897, when a young girl named Virginia wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Sun asking if Santa existed.

Responding to the letter, the editor assured her of the existence of Kris Kringle, telling her to set aside cynicism and have faith in the things that cannot be seen. To this day, the “Believe” campaign connects children to Santa through a simple letter. 

Friday, Dec. 6, marked Macy’s sixth annual National Believe Day, and not only did the “Believe” campaign donate money to Make-A-Wish, but wishes were granted to children across the nation. For every letter sent to Santa Claus, Macy’s donates $1, up to $1 million, to Make-A-Wish. Believers can find a special letterbox at Macy’s stores across the country. Simply take the stamped letter to the box, address it to the North Pole and drop it in the letterbox. Macy’s delivers the letters to the post office to be sent to Santa, because with a twinkling eye and rosy cheeks, the magic of Santa is still in the hearts of all.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Cari DeLamielleure-Scott at cdelamielleure@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1093.