Christmas Maps and GIS

Caitlin Dempsey


One of the biggest mapping fun at Christmas time is NORAD’s Santa tracking.  The tracking started back in 1955 when a Sears department store misprinted the number children could call to get updates on Santa’s whereabouts.  

The number instead went through to the Colorado Springs’ Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Center.  The then Director of Operations at the time, Colonel Harry Shoup, instructed his staff to provide radar based updates to those calling in about Santa locations.  The tradition of providing updates continues to this day.  

The application uses GIS technology to track Santa starting on December 24th. Using NORAD’s radar system called the North Warning System, visitors can log on to the website to track Santa’s movements as he leaves the North Pole. Santa tracking can be done in English, Spanish, French, Italian, German and Japanese.  

This year, NORAD has teamed up with Microsoft and offers apps for all smartphone devices using Bing Maps to track Santa Claus. (Related: How to Track Santa Claus this Christmas).

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Google Santa Tracker

Google also has its own Santa tracker.  

Users will be able to track Santa’s movements via both Google Earth and Google Maps starting at 2:00 a.m. PST on Christmas Eve.  Santa can be tracked on mobile devices as well:

In addition, with some help from developer elves, we’ve built a few other tools to help you track Santa from wherever you may be. Add the new Chrome extension or download the Android app to keep up with Santa from your smartphone or tablet. And to get the latest updates on his trip, follow Google Maps on Google+Facebook and Twitter.

Santas Around the World

Esri has created a Christmas themed map story: “Explore 29 different cultural and geographical variations of Santa Claus and learn about holiday traditions across four continents.”  Learn about the different iterations of Santa Claus, Father Christmas, and St. Nicholas.  Learn about Dyado Myraz (Grandfather Frost) in Bulgaria, Joulupukki (Yule Goat) in Finland, and Hoteiosho (a Buddhist monk that brings teddy bears and gifts) in Japan.

Santa Against Zombies Map

For some quirky GIS analysis relating to Christmas, the floatingsheep blog (the same researchers that created the popular Zombie Google searches map) looked at tagger Flickr photos and geotagged Google Maps annotations to compare the prevalence of the word “Santa” against the word “Zombie” to see which word dominates geographically.  Mapped out onto a gridded system, the map mostly shows a preference for “Santa” as denoted by the green dots:

[T]he map below clearly shows that while most of the country is all keen about Santa, a few pockets including just outside the San Francisco Bay and Seattle and the cities Houston, Dallas and Austin in Texas have a lot of zombie angst.

Map of Santa Versus Zombie Preference.
Map of Santa Versus Zombie Preference.

A post from the “Parallel Divergence” blog from December 22, 2006 entitled “How Google Earth Killed Santa” discusses the potential harm that being able to see the reality of the world’s geography does to children’s beliefs in santa Claus.

You Sleigh Me!
Google Sketch Up! Santas, reindeer and sleighs.

Geography of Christmas

According to U.S. Census 2010 statistics, place names associated with the holiday season include North Pole, Alaska (population 2,117); Santa Claus, Ind. (2,481); Santa Claus, Ga. (165); Noel, Mo. (1,832); and — if you know about reindeer — the village of Rudolph, Wis. (439) and Dasher, Ga. (912). There is Snowflake, Ariz. (5,590) and a dozen places named Holly, including Holly Springs, Miss. (7,699) and Mount Holly, N.C. (13,656).  This Google Maps project by Virender Ajmani maps out all the locations with Christmas themed names (Christmas, Noel, Santa Clause, etc.) for the United States.

So what’s the probability of a white Christmas?  This map (created back in 2001) from NOAA maps out the likelihood of areas around the United States having snow on Christmas based on information from the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC). More maps and tables about predicted snow level conditions are here.

Map showing probabilities of a white Christmas. Source: NOAA, 2001.
Map showing probabilities of a white Christmas. Source: NOAA, 2001.


More holiday and GIS content

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.