The truth is out there, and there’s an awful lot of it. If the stories zinging around the Internet are anything to go by, people are routinely pestered by beings from other dimensions or distant planets.
Less commonplace, however, are reports like this: "We [were] driving by a lonely McDonald's and we [saw] something dashing through the clouds. We could all make out Santa's sleigh and 9 reindeer including Rudolph's nose."
This is just one of the many Santa sightings that have recently been spotlighted on a website devoted to true-life tales of the unexplained. The person who compiled them, a veteran paranormal researcher named Stephen Wagner, is of the opinion that these accounts should be afforded the same respect as those concerning, say, Bigfoot or the Lost City of Atlantis, which represents a significant departure in a field that is sensitive about exposure to ridicule.
Wagner, who lives in Little Falls, N.Y., is no lightweight in the world of the paranormal. He has been researching supernatural events for over three decades. He has written a book on the subject—"Touched By a Miracle: True Stories of Ordinary People and Extraordinary Experiences"—and for 14 years has run a popular About.com page titled Paranormal Phenomena. Today, he is fast becoming the world's leading—and possibly only—expert in Santa-seeing.
In the two years since Wagner started compiling these sightings, he has received "several hundred" submissions, and he is convinced that most of them are genuine in intent, if not verifiable in fact. His hope is that the stories will make people think a little differently about a holiday dream most of us leave behind in childhood. If nothing else, the frequency of these visions, and the sense of absolute certainty apparent in many of the people who have had them, speaks of the power this figure has over the collective imagination.
Sarah, a 41-year-old Californian who contributed to Wagner's Xmas Files, had her encounter back in 1975. "I felt exhilarated, bewildered and very special," she recalls, going on to describe the experience in almost mystical terms: "It was the beautiful golden glow around the man in the big red suit that told me it couldn't possibly be my father. It was glittery like a parade, but the pieces were not falling to the ground."
And the intervening years have not diminished Sarah's sense of wonder. "Seeing Santa changed my outlook forever," she adds, "to the point that I am comfortable with tattooing ol' Big Red onto my body. It means that much to me."
E ven in the open-minded world that Wagner occupies, these festive visitations are raising eyebrows. While paranormal research doesn’t abide by the same strict rules as, say, nuclear physics, it is not entirely without standards. Proof isn’t particularly important in this world, but possibility is, and researchers perform all manner of conceptual gymnastics to maintain it. For example: Faced with an ongoing and abject failure to find anything remotely monstrous in Loch Ness, some have put forward the idea that Nessie may, in fact, be the ghost of a dinosaur—the key word here being “may.”
With Santa, even this standard falls away. Furthermore, these sightings sound a bit silly, which is something else serious researchers get touchy about. "I've never even heard of people seeing Santa," says Loyd Auerbach, who teaches a course on parapsychology at Atlantic University in Virginia. "The Grim Reaper, yes, but not Santa." Auerbach goes on to make a passable attempt at finding a maybe—"The only possibility of this being real is if it's an alien or a ghost pretending to be Santa"—before giving up. "I wouldn't put that kind of sighting in the paranormal category," he says finally. "We can't investigate that. There's nothing we can do with that."
Wagner, for his part, is adamant that Santa sightings have a legitimate place in paranormal research. "Paranormal is, by definition, something that's beyond the norm, unknown, unexplained," he says. "I have postings on my site about apparitions of the Virgin Mary, and I get the same kinds of reactions—'That's not paranormal, that's religion.' Well, where do you draw the line? Whether these characters are fictional or real, these are experiences that people have had that have not been explained by science."
T he one thing that seems beyond doubt in all this is that there are a number of adults out there who believe, in some instances many years after the fact, that they have come into direct personal contact with Father Christmas. "He was in full Santa attire," recalls 51-year-old Missourian Sandra, whose sighting occurred in the mid-1960s. "He was bent over, then he stood up and took a puff from a pipe." Not surprisingly, Sandra doesn't share her story with too many people, but she insists that what she saw was real—maybe. "Who is to say what is real in this life?" she says. "Is our reality really real?"
Rebecca Knibb, a reader in psychology at the UK's University of Derby who analyzes paranormal experiences, is interested in the same question. People who see ghosts, she says, tend to be those who already believe in them—they unconsciously mold reality to fit their beliefs. As for people who see Santa, Knibb speculates that these, too, are likely to be "fantasy prone" individuals whose imaginations have been colored by the season, and who therefore see a fat guy in a red suit rather than an old lady in Victorian garb walking through a wall.
This Santa-as-ghost-substitute theory provides an interesting spin on the creepier sightings people have reported to Wagner, of which there are quite a few. Time and again, we see the stranger lurking in the shadows, peeking around corners, putting his finger to his lips. "He didn't look jolly or kind or happy," writes one person. "He looked kind of eerie." Another describes Santa's suit as "more distinct than the red of a drop of blood."
The most remarkable thing about these stories, however, is how matter-of-fact so many of them are, the meticulousness of the observations. "About seven minutes into my pacing, I saw a tall, fat figure scurry away about 20 feet away from me," writes one observer. Another describes "a man in a red suit with white beard and white fur around his suit with black boots," adding, "He was around 5'8" or 5'9". " While such clarity isn't evident in all of these reports—one person recalls seeing "9 little shining splodges in the sky as well as a big splodge at the back of them"— the overall tone is of people giving courtroom testimony.
This makes sense. People with improbable stories often litter them with mundane detail, as if doing so might help root them in reality, and it doesn't get much more improbable than nine shining splodges in the sky. Reading these accounts, you feel that these are people who are desperate to be taken seriously, and who see Wagner's site as a chance to present their case.
"I told my mom what happened many years later and she insisted that I was dreaming or that it was my dad," writes a New Yorker who claims to have seen Santa in 1969. "That wasn't possible....I'm African American, and during that time the tenants in our building were all African American, so Santa stood out!"
You may not be convinced by this argument, and in the end this may not really matter. For Sandra, the woman who occasionally finds herself wondering if our reality is really real, just knowing that there are other people like her is enough. "It confirms I'm not insane," she says.
Chris Wright is a writer and editor living