This report came to us early this morning. Although some readers may doubt the veracity of this report, our reporter assures us that all witnesses have verified the incidents described below. We leave it to the reader.

Nine reindeer that were part of a live animal exhibit at the National Pageant of Peace were reported missing soon after dark last night, but returned on their own early this morning, according to a park police spokesman.

All nine reindeer were suffering from mild exhaustion, said a team of area veterinarians, but were otherwise in excellent health.

Park police responded to calls from motorists who saw the animals stumbling up the Mall toward The Ellipse around 6 o'clock this morning.

Meanwhile, police are looking for an elderly man dressed in a red suit trimmed with white fur who was seen harnessing the animals to a large sleigh about 7 o'clock last night.

"All of a sudden this little fat man was behind the reindeer pen and the animals acted like they knew what to do," said one stunned witness. "The man called out 'Dancer' and 'Prancer' and six other weird names. Then the deef fell into a formation in front of the sleigh."

Added a visitor who witnessed the scene: "The deer weren't afraid of the fellow at all. Actually, he seemed like a very kind little old man who laughed a lot."

Visitors to the Pageant of Peace said the incident lasted less than five minutes, and they had no idea how the man maneuvered the sleigh on and off the Mall.

Several persons at the Mall contended that the sleigh landed and took off like an airplane, a rumor confirmed by a group of children who observed the landing and takeoff. The children also said they had no doubts about the identity of the man in the red suit.

"It was Santa Claus, I know it was. He winked at me and asked me if I still wanted a doll for Christmas," said one excited youngster.

"When my mom and dad were talking to the security guard with all the other adults, Santa said for us kids to watch how his reindeer could fly," another young observer confided. "All of a sudden they started galloping in place and then, with one big leap, they jumped into the sky."

Meanwhile, veterinarians who examined the animals were puzzled by a substance found on the deers' hoofs.

"It appears to be a grave-like compound found in roof tiles. If I didn't know better, I'd say the animals had been running on roofs all night," said the chief of the examining team. "Of course, that's a ridiculous assumption which we're completely ruled out."

The team said they spent about an hour picking small jingling bells and silver tinsel out of the animals' antlers. However, when they attempted to throw out the bells, the deer became very upset and knocked over several trash cans.

"We felt it to be in the best interest of the animals' mental stability to let them keep the bells in the pen with them. All nine are now resting comfortably," said the chief veterinarian.

Finally, Elmer C. McScrooge, a grounds-keeper for the pageant, reported receiving a large, wrapped package with his name on it from the little man in the red suit.

"When I opened it up, I couldn't believe it! He gave me the nicest winter coat I've ever seen. I've needed one for years, and this one fits like it was made especially for me. Maybe it was that Claus guy," McScrooge speculated.