DENVER - The U.S. and Canadian military will entertain millions of kids again this Christmas Eve with second-by-second updates on Santa's global whereabouts. But there's something new this year: public criticism.
A children's advocacy group says an animated video on the NORAD Tracks Santa website injects militarism into Christmas by showing fighter jets escorting Santa's sleigh. It's a rare swipe at the popular program, which last year attracted a record 22.3 million unique visitors from around the world to its website.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command defends the video as nonthreatening and safe for kids.
The kerfuffle erupted two weeks ago over a 39-second video on noradsanta.org called "NORAD Tracks Santa Trailer Video 2013."
A 5-second segment of the video - which is also available on youtube.com - shows two fighter jets flanking Santa.
The Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood said the video brings violence and militarism to a beloved tradition. Others had similar criticism. Blogs and Twitter lit up with volleys from both sides.
Josh Golin, the coalition's associate director, reiterated his criticism in an interview with The Associated Press - but he called the brouhaha "a media-manufactured controversy." The coalition hadn't known about the fighter jet video until reporters called, he said.
"Nobody in my organization was out there protesting," he said.
U.S. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a NORAD spokesman, said he understands the critics' point of view but disagrees.
"We really do feel strongly that it's something that is safe and non-threatening, and not something that would negatively impact children," he said. "In fact, we think that it's a lot of fun."
Davis said the fighter escort is nothing new. NORAD began depicting jets accompanying Santa and his reindeer in the 1960s, he said.
And he insisted the fighters in the video are unarmed: They're Canadian Air Force CF-18s, with a large external fuel tank under the belly that might look like a bomb. The wing racks that would carry bombs or missiles are empty, he explained.
The flap has driven lots of viewers to the video - nearly 265,000 on YouTube by midday Monday.
"That's way off the charts for any other videos we've done before," Davis said.
A second video on noradsanta.org and on YouTube, "NORAD Tracks Santa Command Video 2013," has drawn nearly 122,000 views. It's a longer, fast-paced mix of animation and real-life footage billed as a test flight for Santa, who gets the military tag "Big Red One."
"This is very much a fun and safe and nonviolent site that children of all ages can visit," Davis said. "Parents can be confident their children will walk away (and) have had fun and potentially have learned something, too."
NORAD is a U.S.-Canadian operation based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo. It's charged with defending the skies over both nations and monitoring sea approaches.
The Santa program began in 1955 when a typo in a local newspaper advertisement had children calling the hotline of NORAD's predecessor, asking to talk to Santa.
It's now a Christmas tradition that thrills millions of kids, and parents. Last year, global monitoring of Santa's voyage logged 114,000 phone calls to NORAD, 1.2 million Facebook followers and 129,000 Twitter followers.