Most of us take the rituals and customs of Christmas at face value and don’t realize how weird and ancient they truly are. Though many people know that our modern Santa Claus evolved from the real-life 4th century Bishop of Myra, St. Nicholas, very few of us have any idea that many characteristics associated with the “jolly old elf” derive from an ancient northern pagan figure who drew his powers and insight from the “magic” fly agaric mushroom.
Born in what is now Turkey, the generous and kindly St. Nick worked his way north from the Mediterranean with the spread of Christianity. Eventually, carried by Dutch, Germans, and English immigrants, he jumped across the Atlantic to America where he was codified in Clement Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” Thomas Nast’s mid-19th century illustrations, and, beginning in the 1920s, Haddon Sundblom’s indelible Coca Cola ads.
But the archetype of a solitary, snowy figure in red and white emerging from a sleigh drawn by flying reindeer with a bag of gifts slung over his shoulder and a pine tree in his hand predates St. Nicholas and even Christ himself. This hearty shaman of the northern wilderness drew his magical powers and insight from a hallucinogenic red-with-white-spots fungi called the fly agaric mushroom, images of which can be found hiding in plain sight throughout popular culture to this very day.
Before shamanic Santa Claus, let’s take a quick look at other Christmas rituals with ancient origins. Recall that until very recently, nature dominated the lives and minds of men. In northern climes, the retreat of the sun and the coming of the cold and snow had profound practical as well as symbolic implications. Food, warmth, and light became scarce, the world shrank, cold and hunger gnawed.
In the farthest north, the light of the sun disappeared completely. When the sun was weakest and its appearance shortest in late December — winter solstice — there was nagging fear that it might never return. Imagine the relief and great rejoicing at ritual sites such as Stonehenge when the sun rose slightly higher and stayed slightly longer the next day.It is no coincidence that the birth of the Son would be celebrated in conjunction with the return of the sun – saviors of mankind both. Pagan winter solstice symbolism is seen very explicitly at Christian Christmas Eve candlelight services, which climax with all artificial light being extinguished and parishioners lighting their candles, one by one, from the lone Christ candle at the altar.
And so to Santa Claus. Norse, Lapp, Siberian, Germanic and other Northern Hemisphere shamans ate the hallucinogenic, festively red-with-white-spots fly agaric mushroom (amanita muscaria) ritually as a path to secret knowledge. For the nomadic, reindeer-herding people of the northern Kamchatka Peninsula, wherever the Creator spat on the Earth, the fly agaric mushroom sprouted. The people’s spirit animal, the Great Raven, spotted the colorful fungi and gobbled it up. He began to feel lively, started dancing, and became clairvoyant, saying, “Let the fly agaric mushroom live forever on the Earth, and let my children see what it has to show them!”
One of the things it showed them was a journey, a shamanic journey of knowledge to the spirit realm, or a “soul flight.” Being reindeer herders of the frozen tundra, it only made sense to make the journey with their pals the reindeer — who seek out and eat the mushrooms themselves — leading the way. As a tribute to the mushroom that gave them “wings,” many shamans dressed in the red and white colors of their favorite hallucinogen.
In addition to inducing a sense of flight, fly agarics are known to stimulate auditory hallucinations, which can be interpreted as messages from the spirit plane, i.e., secret knowledge. Santa Claus, of course, possesses secret knowledge as to who is naughty and who is nice, and he goes on a very important magical journey, dressed in red and white, every Christmas Eve.
And if that weren’t enough, fly agarics tend to grow under evergreen trees, with which they form a symbiotic relationship. When they were picked in bulk by a shaman, say, they might be hung to dry on the branches of the tree above them as he continued picking. When it was time to go home, the ‘shrooms could be collected into a sack, slung over the shoulder of a man in heavy skins symbolically dyed red and white, and hauled away – maybe even delivered as presents.
To this day, the fly agaric mushroom, the mushroom featured in Alice in Wonderland, is considered a symbol of good luck in Europe and is popular on Christmas, New Year’s and other greeting cards; as well as Christmas tree ornaments, Christmas decorations, and other figurines.
So while these northern peoples didn’t know Jesus, they did know nature and they did know the sacred, and they handed down to us some of our most cherished symbols of the Christmas season.
READ MORE “WEIRD CHRISTMAS”:
Talking Weird Christmas Customs with Gerry Bowler on After Hours AM/America’s Most Haunted Radio
Werewolves of Yule
Mari Lwyd – The Party Animal Horse Skull of Wales
Krampus – The Rise of the Anti-Claus
Talking Krampus with Novelist Richard Kadrey on After Hours AM/America’s Most Haunted Radio
The Yule Log
The Macabre Adventures of St. Nicholas
Midnight Syndicate on After Hours AM/America’s Most Haunted Radio
Midnight Syndicate Brings Spooky Sensibility to CHRISTMAS: A GHOSTLY GATHERING
SCROOGED Should Be On Your Christmas Horror List
by Christian Rätsch [Inner Traditions]
by Joe Wheeler [Thomas Nelson Inc]
by Thomas Nast [Dover Publications]