Stories aren’t just meant to be shared around a campfire or while tucking children into bed. They often help define a time and place or illustrate a universal truth.

That’s why the U.S. Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center preserves sad stories, funny stories and even heart-wrenchingly serious stories. The collection of oral histories boasts stories from 650,000 participants and counting — the largest single collection of human voices in the world.

The project is the brainchild of radio producer Dave Isay, who in 2003 named it StoryCorps. (StoryCorps is an independent nonprofit organization funded by donations.)

At first, the stories were told by pairs of people interviewing each other in a recording booth in New York’s Grand Central Terminal. Today, the project has added sound booths in Atlanta and Chicago as well as mobile recordings. When the pandemic hit, StoryCorps added a platform for people to do interviews on their phones and computers, helping Americans tell their stories during a time of social distancing.

“When we listen to the stories of other people, we can understand more about our shared humanity,” said Colleen Ross, the managing director of StoryCorps. “Listening is an act of love and … increasingly, it is an act that is essential to building compassion and empathy for others.”

ShareAmerica will highlight some of our favorite stories in a series that begins with this explanation of how a Christmas tradition started.

Salute to Santa

Sixty-six years ago, the department store Sears, Roebuck and Company printed a phone number for children to call and talk with Santa.

But the number contained an error and reached the desk of an Air Force colonel with the Continental Air Defense Command (now called the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD). The command protects the skies over the U.S. and Canada.

Here, three of the children of the late Colonel Harry Shoup recount how their usually straight-laced father handled a flood of calls to Santa. Children from all over the world still call NORAD at this time of year for Santa updates in multiple languages.

Terri Van Keuren, Rick Shoup and Pamela Farrell