Most of us are familiar with how the legend of Santa Claus evolved, having descended from the traditions of Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century saint famous for his charity work and gift-giving, along with all of the details that have been added onto the story of Santa over the centuries, including his red suit, flying reindeer, Arctic abode, etc. However, Sierra College anthropologist John Rush suggests that many of these details might have an origin that has flown under the radar until recently: the shamanic use of hallucinogenic mushrooms.
"Santa is a modern counterpart of a shaman, who consumed mind-altering plants and fungi to commune with the spirit world," explains Rush, of whom has found numerous parallels between Saint Nick and Amanita muscaria, a widely-recognized red-and-white mushroom, typically known as "fly agaric". Shamans in the Arctic regions of northern Eurasia would distribute these mushrooms to local villages in late December, sometimes having to enter the recipients’ homes through their chimneys
"As the story goes, up until a few hundred years ago, these practicing shamans or priests connected to the older traditions would collect Amanita muscaria (the Holy Mushroom), dry them and then give them as gifts on the winter solstice," Rush explains in an email interview with LiveScience. "Because snow is usually blocking doors, there was an opening in the roof through which people entered and exited, thus the chimney story."
These shamans would also often dress in clothing that would match the colors of their mushrooms, red with white spots or white trim, a color scheme much like Santa’s. Reindeer are also prominent as spirit animals amongst Arctic shamans, and have been known to eat Amanita mushrooms to get high — the toxins that usually have to be removed from the ‘shrooms don’t bother the caribou, and provide a possible origin for Santa’s flying reindeer. Shamans would also collect reindeer urine after the creatures had ingested the mushrooms, as the psilocybin would be present in the liquid, but the toxins naturally contaminating the mushrooms would be metabolized by the reindeer.
Other details include the inclusion of mushrooms in Christmas iconography, including the use of mushroom-shaped tree ornaments in Scandinavia and northern Europe; the folk myth of the Wild Hunt, being led by the bearded god Woden (Odin in Norse mythology) may have influenced Santa’s nocturnal delivery run; Amanita mushrooms are also often found growing under pine trees, preferring the acidic soil the conifers produce — brightly-colored presents under the tree, for those seeking them.
While considering the numerous parallels presented by Rush, one must bear in mind that correlation does not necessarily mean causation: While these ideas are intriguing, there hasn’t been a direct link found between the ancient traditions surrounding hallucinogenic mushrooms, and the more modern traditions involving Santa Claus, many of which have long-standing histories. But it’s still food for thought… and even perhaps for spirit.
Wishing everyone a Holiday filled with extra sensory wonders.
Sidenote: meditation is a shortcut to feeling groovy.