Santa Claus is coming to your sky


(image via Wikimedia Commons: Space Station over Sedona.)

For the first couple of Christmas eve's of my daughter's life, I would take her over to the computer and show her Santa's current position on the sweet and dopey Santa NORAD tracking site. Even by the time she turned four years old, though, she was beginning to get suspicious that this cartoon Santa had little to do with the real one.

I needed a better shtick. And last year I found the best one ever. I will definitely be pulling this one again this year.

Just around her bed time I warned her that Santa was coming soon and she definitely needed to be asleep if he was going to stop. We put out milk and cookies and carrots as I kept checking the time on my watch.

At precisely 7:34 I said "I think he's about to fly overhead right about now."


"Yeah, let's go outside and look," I whispered.

We went out to the back yard, looked up at the sky for about a minute, and then something that looked like a little star silently rose from the southwestern horizon, passed straight overhead, and disappeared behind the mountains to the north.

My daughter gasped.

"Hurry inside. He's on his way!" I said.

My daughter ran inside, jumped in bed, and pulled up the covers.

Someday she'll figure out the trick, but until she does, she and I will be standing outside every Christmas eve, waiting for our glimpse of real magic flying across the sky.


  1. I’m not so sure you’ll be able to pull that trick reliably every year, at least with the ISS. Being able to see the ISS after sunset or before sunrise depends on the orbital plane of the ISS intersecting the Earth near your location (within a couple hundred miles or so) during those times, so there are periods when it is visible and periods when it is not. The orbital plane changes slowly over time so there’s no assurance you’ll get a visible pass during a given part of the year every year.

  2. My dad use to put his boot in the soot of the fireplace and make a foot print on the brick of the hearth. Once he even took one of those big shells that you blow to make a horn sound and used that to make hoof prints in dirt out side with some chewed up carrots.

    Oh and I was just told by a friend to wrap the presents in different wrapping paper then what you have at home, and to destroy all evidence! Kids are smarter then you think!

  3. heh – when my son was 5 in a fit of honesty I explained about Santa – a few days later he came back from a trip to the mall with his mother – he explained that I was wrong, he’d seen Santa, and he was real – I left it at that, he was believing what he saw for himself with his own eyes over what adults were telling him – we’d done something right

  4. Maybe I’m just a terrible Scrooge, but to me the International Space Station is way cooler than any fictitious trinket-dispensing elf herder could ever be.

    So this is like getting a kid to belive in the existence of ponies by showing her a unicorn with it´s horn sawed of.

    1. I must be a terrible Scrooge too, but I agree entirely.

      The worst thing about this is you only get to show the kid the ISS once a year.

      1. No the sad part, for me at least, is that it probably won’t work this year, since she and I go out to watch the ISS all the time! Because once people start to know they can go out to see it, I find that they are hooked.

        I should have mentioned: simply follow @twisst on Twitter and you will get a tweet every time the ISS is coming (assuming your location in your profile corresponds to something that a computer can make sense of).

        But Iridium flares are stupendous (please Santa, bring my one of THOSE on Christmas).

    2. “So this is like getting a kid to belive in the existence of ponies by showing her a unicorn with it´s horn sawed of.”

      Oops. I snorted with laughter and scared my cat out of the room.

  5. “I left it at that, he was believing what he saw for himself with his own eyes over what adults were telling him – we’d done something right.”

    That made me smile.

  6. A very cool idea. Unfortunately, it would rarely work here in the rainy Pacific Northwest (according to WolframAlpha or NOAA)…

    • 2000 lt rain<
    • 2001 clear
    • 2002 partly cloudy
    • 2003 partly cloudy
    • 2004 fog
    • 2005 lt rain, fog
    • 2006 mostly cloudy
    • 2007 mostly cloudy
    • 2008 overcast
    • 2009 mostly cloudy


  7. We have never lied to our kids. We always told them that Santa Claus was not real and that it was just a fun game for grown ups to play at Christmas time. But when each kid was around 4-5 we could tell them the truth one minute and the next they would be all excited talking about Santa coming with presents soon. At this certain age, they believed it no matter what.

    One December we were down in Florida visiting my in-laws and ended up at the mall. My son (about 3 1/2 at the time) spotted the mall Santa getting set up. There was no one else around. He stood there mesmerized. I wish I had a camera to record what happened next. While keeping one eye on the kid, I tried to figure out which store my wife was in and get her attention. I looked back and the kid was ten feet closer to Santa. Looked away, looked back – ten feet closer. Then he was standing behind him. Then Santa was leaning over as my son spoke to him. My son pointed at Santa’s chair. Then he was in Santa’s lap, talking seriously and nodding his head. And then he hopped down, waved goodbye to Santa and walked back to me.

    “What did you talk to Santa about,” I asked.

    “I had to tell Santa I wanted a basketball,” my son replied.

  8. A few years ago, when the boys were 6, 7, and 9, we had them make notes for Santa to put out instead of milk and cookies. Little construction paper and crayon cards with Christmas wishes and so forth. They left them on a table by the fireplace and were terribly surprised Christmas morning when the cards were still there- there was almost a “Santa panic” until we urged them to take a closer look. Three sheets of folded construction paper were indeed still there, but all the crayon markings were gone! Watching their faces, you could see the exact instant that, one by one, it dawned on them that he had magically taken just their words and drawings and left the empty papers behind. They remained in a state of almost religious awe at the terrible might of Santa for quite some time thereafter. That went over much better than the year we explained Krampus to them and then convinced them that it had been spotted in the area.

  9. When my kids where younger, they used to talk to Santa Claus on the ham radio. That was enough for them to keep the Christmas spirit alive.

  10. What a great idea. Too bad my daughter has been watching the ISS with me since she was five (she’s 14 now).

  11. i wish mr brown explained what he was talking about instead of leaving it an inside joke for astronomy buffs. at least one commenter is confused and he/she certainly represents many readers. mr brown is talking about the international space station, an especially large, bright, low-orbiting satellite. its passage over your part of the world can be looked up on the internet.

  12. Never take her out into a rural area and let her outside at night. She’ll be horrified, confused, then suspicious when she sees lights whipping by in the sky 2,3,4 at a time …

  13. I’m surprised that nobody has mentioned the excellent : give them your latitude and longitude, and they provide detailed custom tracks of the ISS, and pretty much every other heavenly body that you have any hope of seeing.

    The coolest bit is the Iridium flare predictions, which include expected magnitude. Some are visible in daylight!

    (The hyphen in the URL is important.)

    1. hawkins, click on the link in the original post (under “she’ll figure out the trick”).

      Anon @3, do the same.

  14. I use a little program that collects Iridium flare information from Heaven’s Above and puts alerts for especially bright ones in my calendar. My phone beeps at me 15 minutes before the flare is scheduled to appear—enough time to get ready to see it if I want to (and if the sky clear enough), but not enough time for me to get distracted and forget.

    As written, the program communicates with iCal on my Mac, but I think it could easily be adapted to another calendar program or maybe even Google Calendar.

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