Santa Claus might be the jolly, bearded, gift-giving symbol of Christmas but in his original suit, Santa might have been an Amanita muscaria mushroom shaman.
“Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…”
For many of us, Santa was a seminal figure in our childhoods. As our parents tucked us into our beds on Christmas Eve, we couldn’t wait to wake up the next morning. There were some of us, perhaps, that tried to stay awake in hopes of catching Santa in his red-and-white suit but our fatigue usually won in the end.
In what seemed like a split-second, our eyes opened to Christmas morning. We bolted to the Christmas tree in our pajamas to check if Santa had indeed paid us a visit. New presents were left under the tree. The snacks that we left for Santa and his reindeer – milk and cookies and carrots – had been eaten. Santa was here!
However, the revelation that Santa Claus was never there, never real, caused most of us, if not all, to dismiss the whole story as a fairytale. But what if Santa was real? What if the real Santa Claus was a shaman (with reindeer) that came down the chimney with a bag of mushrooms?!
Time to put the trippy back in Christmas.
If we were to travel back in time, and to the Arctic Circle, we would find shamans that bear striking similarities to Santa. In ancient indigenous cultures from this region, shamans dressed in red-and-white would bring special gifts down villagers’ chimneys for the winter solstice. The inspiration for Shaman Santa’s costume was also the gift that they would deliver – the Amanita muscaria mushroom. One source cites that these mushrooms were discovered by shamans as far back as 5000 B.C.E.
Amanita Muscaria – Red and White Like Santa
First of all, one could imagine how unusual and magical it was to see the color red growing from blankets of snow. The mushrooms are bright red with white spots and travel exclusively on pine needles. Thus, they would grow in abundance underneath pine trees. They looked like gifts from the tree itself but they were just pretty packages. What lay inside them was the real present.
We are no strangers to the Amanita muscaria mushroom. It is one of the most iconic toadstool species in pop culture. From Disney movies such as Alice in Wonderland and Fantasia to Christian adverts from the Victorian era to the video game hero Super Mario–the legacy of the Amanita muscaria has endured in our imaginations as a fantastical fungus packed with meaning. In its original context, however, indigenous cultures in Northern Siberia and Finland ingested the Amanita muscaria as part of a winter solstice tradition.
Making their way through the deep snow, the shaman in red-and-white collected Amanita muscaria mushrooms underneath the Christmas trees. In order to dry the mushrooms for consumption, they would either hang them on the lower branches of the pine or over their fireplace in a sock. Could mushrooms have inspired Christmas ornaments and stockings? Tell that to grandma this year. Not only is Santa Claus much older than his Christian counterpart, St. Nicholas, but a mushroom-eating shaman.
What about the Reindeer?
Humans were not the only ones who figured out that there was something special about the Amanita muscaria. Reindeer still hold an important place in the mythology and lives of the indigenous cultures in the region. And they love these ‘shrooms. They trip along with human beings. Apparently, the Amanita muscaria also enchants the reindeer with an ability to fly.
Come Fly Away…
The common name for Amanita muscaria is fly agaric. It enhances a sense of euphoria in humans and reindeer alike. Santa’s jolly exclamation of “ho-ho-ho” may reflect the overall feeling that the fly agaric inspires. In taking a moment to consider the winter-blues that affect many of us, the joy that the mushrooms produce, especially when food might be scarce and conditions harsh, is a beautiful gift from nature.
Beyond that, the shrooms activate the muscular system in such a way that can increase one’s strength–reindeer included. For all those who dream of having the superhuman ability to fly, the Amanita muscaria might be your ticket. For both humans and reindeer alike, the sensation on the ‘shrooms is akin to flying. In the end, everyone was flying high.
Shaman Santa’s Trip
Shaman Santa packed up his bags, got on his reindeer sleigh, and flew towards the villagers’ yurts. According to folklore, Shaman Santa took a spiritual journey to the “tree of life” – a large pine in the North Pole – that held the answers to all the villagers’ problems. But there would often be too much snow to enter through the front door. So, Shaman Santa had to climb up the yurt and climb down the central opening on the roof that would lead to – you guessed it – the fireplace! Then Shaman Santa passed the gifts around to those present.
A Little Toxic, No Problem
Ingesting the fly agaric is known to cause unpleasant, even toxic, effects. For that reason, the toxins need to be filtered out. One could parboil the mushrooms in order to do so but indigenous tribes used the body’s natural filtration system. Since the reindeer ate mushrooms, people would drink their urine, which held all the psychoactive properties but not the toxins that would cause discomfort or harm. The same was the case with human urine. A Swedish prisoner of war in the 18th century witnessed this event.
“Koryak tribespeople were waiting outside huts where mushroom sessions were taking place, waiting for people to come out and urinate,” he described. “When they did, the warm, steamy tawny-gold nectar was collected in wooden bowls and greedily gulped down. The Amanita muscaria effect could apparently be recycled up to five times in this manner, and remarkably, was less likely to cause the vomiting often associated with the direct ingestion of the substance.”
A Time to Heal
Regardless of how they were ingested, the purpose of this ritual was to self-reflect, problem-solve, and heal. Shaman Santa brought the community together, and everyone involved participated in an act of magic. Sounds familiar. In our modern-day conception, we don’t tend to view Santa as a healer. But joy is healing. In the dead of winter, a jolly character comes into our homes and inspirits us with gifts. It’s not about the presents. It’s about the people who are present. Though, we wouldn’t mind if Santa left us some of his ‘shrooms.