364 days Santa Claus waits patiently preparing for his big night in the icy seclusion of his frozen Northern estate, until finally, on December 24th, it is time. He descends from his winter fortress, burlap sack slung over his shoulder, and hops Austin-Power style over the back of his 1823 Candy-Apple red Sleigh convertible. His reindeer rear up as he leans back with one arm raised in the moonlight and bellows a blustery roar–“Ho! Ho! HOOOO!” He takes off into the night.
Christmas is a time of generosity and laughter, where miracles occur and cheerful behavior spreads like swine flu. Just for one day, Santa can revel with the good people of earth–and it makes him very, very happy. However, Harvard scholar and biologist Donald Pfister suggests an alternative reason for ol’ Kris Kringle’s jolly gallivanting: Santa was getting trippy on mushrooms.
I know the holidays are an excuse for frivolous behavior and alcohol abuse, but magic mushrooms? Santa…you sick dog, you. Saint Nicholas indeed…
Pfister claims that the true origin of the holiday—and Santa Claus himself—can be traced back to the shamanistic traditions of pre-Christian Siberian and Northern European tribal culture.
The Amanita Muscaria mushroom—also known as fly agaric for its unique hallucinogenic properties—was a popular spiritual food for Siberian tribesmen. Native to the frozen northern hemisphere, the lives of these tribesmen have long been intertwined with that of reindeer.
In fact, the land is not the only thing the Siberians and reindeer shared; they also had similar tastes in food. The horned animal is known to munch these mushrooms as frequently and avidly as a pre-acid Tim O’Leary. Whether or not the reindeer experienced its hallucinogenic properties is unknown. However, in humans it is believed that the hallucinatory experience brought on by these red and white mushrooms would turn the reindeers galloping stride into visions of full flight.
The process of cultivating these mushrooms also shares a number of stark similarities to the Christmas ritual. The shamans would (and still do) dress up in ceremonial red and white fur-trimmed jackets and dark boots, collecting the Christmas-coloured mushrooms that grow almost exclusively beneath the tall green pines.
The shamans would hang the mushrooms from the arms of the pine trees to let them dry before delivering these spiritual gifts, home to home. Due to the thick wall of snow which blocks the doors of villagers’ homes in the wintertime, the shamans would climb down through the smoke-hole. The villagers would then use stockings to hang the mushrooms in front of the fire, so that by morning they would be fully dried and ready to enjoy.
Boston University professor Carl Ruck thinks so.
“It’s amazing that a reindeer with a red-mushroom nose is at the head, leading the others… Is there any other reason that Santa lives in the North Pole? It is a tradition that can be traced back to Siberia.” Ruck is quoted as saying.
Pfister is so adamant of the shamanistic origins of the holiday that he preforms a lecture on the topic every year at Harvard before Christmas.
Whether Pfister’s assertions hold weight, this theory does restore a magical quality to Christmas—one which was lost when we found out who was really eating all those cookies and drinking our milk. After all, Christmas has never been about the gifts you receive. In true shamanistic fashion, it is the spirit we embrace.