Our modern image of Santa as a plump, jolly old elf was most famously put forth in 1822, in the familiar poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” later to be called “'Twas the Night Before Christmas”. Clement Clark Moore, a scholar of the literature of the ancient Greeks and other civilizations, claimed authorship, but for the record, Moore may not actually be the author of the poem that made him famous. Observers have pointed out that many of the poem’s concepts, such as the Dutch reindeer names, were lifted from earlier work by Moore’s friend Washington Irving.
And worse yet, the descendants of Major Henry Livingston Jr., a Dutch Hudson Valley gentleman farmer and poet, have claimed, with some merit, that it was Livingston who penned the famous poem.
The first known written account of reindeer in association with the legend of Santa Claus appeared one year earlier than the beloved but controversial poem. In 1821, New York printer William Gilley published a sixteen page booklet titled A New Years Present: to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve Number III : The Children's Friend by an anonymous author. In this book, flying reindeer are introduced into the Santa Claus narrative:
Old Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night.
O'er chimneytops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you.
During an 1822 interview, New York's Troy Sentinel editor Orville L. Holley questioned Mr. Gilley regarding the booklet's author and the topic of the flying reindeer. Though he did not identify the author, Mr. Gilley responded:
"Dear Sir, the idea of Santeclaus was not mine nor was the idea of a reindeer. The author of the tale but submitted the piece, with little added information. However, it should be noted that he did mention the reindeer in a subsequent correspondence. He stated that far in the north near the Arctic lands a series of animals exist, these hooven and antlered animals resemble the reindeer and are feared and honored by those around, as you see he claims to have heard they could fly from his mother. His mother being an Indian of the area."
Germans are especially fond of fly agaric, calling it glücklicher pilz or gluckspilz, which literally means “lucky mushroom”. These lucky postcard mushrooms from the early 1900s bring sweet and sincere Seasons Greetings and Best Wishes for the New Year.
Amanita mushrooms are famous not only for their dramatic looks but also for their intense psychedelic effects. Although the New Year postcards below feature cherubs, angelic children, and a respectfully-dressed young woman, they clearly refer to the sensation of being in flight that commonly occurs after consumption of hallucinogenic mushrooms.
Were members of “polite society” that familiar with psychedelic mushrooms? I doubt it. More likely, the red-topped toadstools were such long-embedded symbols of Yuletide and the New Year that, along with the original meaning of holly, mistletoe, and ivy, the relationship between deep winter and toadstools was long forgotten. And considering that many of our “Christmas" traditions had their origin in pagan cultures of long ago that were subsequently Christianized, it's not surprising that we have lost our sense of what some of them truly mean.
Most of our most cherished holiday traditions are actually intricate pastiches of myths and sacred stories from diverse cultures. It is impossible to follow a single thread - the stories are so intertwined, tangled up, and tied in knots.
Christmas itself stems from pre-Christian beliefs and ancient Winter Solstice rituals and practices. And although most people see Christmas as a Christian holiday, many of the symbols and icons we now associate with Christmas are actually derived from the shamanistic traditions of the tribal peoples of pre-Christian Northern Europe.
Santa Claus, too, is a composite of many figures - some historical and others imaginary. The Santa we see in department stores can be traced back to a fourth-century Greek monk, Saint Nicholas of Myra, a bearded Christian known for charitable giving. Saint Nicholas fell out of favor when all of the feast and saint's days were banned during the Protestant Reformation. After going underground for a time, the Greek monk re-emerged as Sinterklaas, the patron saint of Dutch children. Sinterklaas, in his own adaptation of the ecclesiastical red cape and mitre, rides a flying white horse and delivers gifts to children on the December name day of Saint Nicholas.
The Dutch version of Saint Nicholas is sometimes assisted by "Black Pete”, a gnome-like “Dark Helper”, who is probably the remnant of an ancient pagan deity associated with the solstice celebration. And the British legend of Father Christmas, another incarnation of the gift-giving St. Nicholas, has him living in Lapland, a land of reindeerherders with a strong cultural connection to Siberia. At some point, these early versions of Santa Claus coalesced with Odin, the pagan Germanic deity, who was also linked with shamanism, gift-giving, and celestial travel. It was the all-powerful Odin riding his eight-legged, flying horse that caused the otherworldly aurora borealis to appear in the wintry sky. And the drops of blood-flecked foam that fell from his horse’s mouth gave rise to the red and white amanita mushrooms so important in northern shamanic practice. Over time, the European story of a flying horse with eight legs converged with an ancient Arctic circle tale of supernatural reindeer traveling through the night sky. Details of these airborne animals merged together into the eight prancing, flying reindeer that pull Santa’s sleigh today.
If you still believe in Santa Claus, stop reading right now!
There’s a dreadful rumor circulating about the Jolly Old Elf. Some people are saying that Santa’s magical midnight flight is fueled by mushrooms - gasp, hallucinogenic mushrooms. And if that’s not shocking enough, Santa may be “a modern counterpart of a shaman, who consumed mind-altering plants and fungi to commune with the spirit world.” This is according to John Rush, an anthropologist and instructor at Sierra College in Rocklin, California, and several religious scholars and ethnomycologists agree with him.
The mushroom in question is the beautiful but treacherous fly agaric, Amanita muscaria - the red and white spotted toadstool we see on Yule Log cakes, Christmas cards, and even Christmas trees this time of year. This festive fungus is found deep in the forest beneath conifers, where it forms symbiotic relationships with other Christmas-time favorites such as pines, firs, and spruces. Finding the red-topped toadstool supposedly brings good luck to the forager just as the four-leafed clover does to its finder, and both are symbols of blessing and good luck at the turning of the year.
The distinction between shaman and reindeer was often deliberately obscured. To increase their spiritual power, shamans would assume the identity of reindeer by wearing hides and antlers. The ancient horned kichko above is a good example of stylized representations of horns or antlers that were worn by a female shamans.
The other avenues used to induce trances, such as drums, also centered around reindeer - they were made entirely from reindeer hides and tendons and the mesmerizing rhythms were beaten out with a reindeer bone.
The symbiosis between shaman and reindeer even extended to their mutual attraction to the Amanita mushroom - reindeer actively seek out and eat the same red and white hallucinogenic mushrooms that the shamans use to enter another reality. They are so fond of the fly agaric that reindeer herders use it to lure stray animals back to the herd.
The reindeer that are normally quite docile become frisky and difficult to manage while under the influence of Amanita. Stories abound of intoxicated reindeer leaping and cavorting across the tundra. If their flesh is eaten at this time, those who ingested the reindeer meat would also become intoxicated. It may even be that the native Siberians first deduced the probable hallucinogenic effects of Amanita muscaria by observing intoxicated reindeer.
So both the shaman and his reindeer are high on Amanita! Since the effects of the mushroom, at least for humans, include sensations of flying, unnatural strength and endurance, clarity of thought, euphoria, and spiritual receptiveness, this double intoxication would certainly have facilitated the desired soul journey.
Soul journeys are critical to people like the Sami, for whom the purpose of the shaman’s trip to other realities is to restore the harmony of the group, to heal their afflicted people, and to control the cycles of nature. When the shamans travel and return as flying reindeer, they bring the precious gift of knowledge. And knowledge, after all, is the ultimate determinant of whether or not life can proceed, especially in a harsh environment.
Does any of this sound like Santa Claus? Actually, in certain respects, yes. Especially if the layers of superimposed commercialization and sentimentality are peeled away and Santa is seen through the prism of his earlier iterations.
It is significant that the traditions that contributed most robustly to the Santa-composite are those of the northern latitudes - the cultures most closely aligned with shamanic practice.
Santa’s mode of transport by flying reindeer certainly resonates with the sacred stories of many cultures, especially the supernatural travel required during critical times of spiritual or seasonal transitions.
And since psychedelic mushrooms, specifically Amanita, were the favored spiritual tools in the Northern lands, it makes sense that fragmented cultural memories of the magic of mushrooms might still appear in our popular culture in winter.
Shamanic activity would, of course, have increased during the darkness of Midwinter, and this may account for the otherwise mysterious associations between the red-topped mushroom and the transition from the old year to the new.
The persistent folk belief that Amanita mushrooms in particular are harbingers of good luck and prosperity may well hearken back to these nearly forgotten shamanic rituals of seasonal transitions such as the Winter Solstice.
And finally, Santa Claus, along with his remote predecessors, is a Gift-giver. Odin brought the gift of ongoing life with the return of the sun and Saint Nicholas brought the gift of the Christmas Christ Child.
The shamans of the many Northern cultures brought the gift of harmony, healing, and reconciliation to their people.
What does Santa bring? That is a question that we should all be asking ourselves in this time of deep reflection.
Midwinter celebrations honored the Norse gods Odin and Thor with “sacred” evergreens representing immortality and featured huge bonfires to attract the sun. Thor, above left, is depicted as the triumphant warrior returning home with the wayward sun and a basket of gifts. On the right, the Anglo-Saxon Holly King also plays his assigned role in the yearly cycle of creation and destruction. As the God of the Waning Year, the Holly King rules over the dark months from Midsummer to Yule. At the Winter Solstice, though, he surrenders his life force to the Oak King so that the light part of the year may return. His sacrifice means that life itself may return and flourish.
Changes of the seasons were always precarious times. Intense spiritual interventions - shamanic rituals, sacrifice, and gift-giving - were required to keep the yearly cycle on track. And, especially at the darkest time of the year, life itself was at stake.
To ensure the survival of their people, shamans needed to travel to the realm of the gods and successfully petition the dying sun to return to life. There were many channels for shamanic intervention, but central to many of the northern Winter Solstice ceremonies was the collection, preparation, and ingestion of the hallucinogenic fly agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria)..
Flying animals, frequently reindeer, have consistently appeared in shamanic tales of life, death, and journeys to the spiritual realm. Northern shamans preparing for a spiritual journey often wore headdresses of reindeer antlers tipped with wings or feathers to facilitate their flight.
The standing stone pictured above depicts two abstract flying reindeer with greatly elongated antlers. These were placed above burial sites 3,000 years ago, presumably to guide the departed to the spirit realm. Pazyryk people, an ancient nomadic tribe, created the exquisitely carved and gilded deer above as well as the carved gravestones. The Pazyryk are best known for the elaborate winged deer tattoos found on their mummified remains.
The Herb Society of America - South Texas Unit
Again, according to Krolick,
‘Muscimol’ – the psychoactive agent in this mushroom – has sedative, hypnotic, and dissociative effects, transforming one’s normal sense of self encased in a bag of skin, and thereby creating a real sense of being-beside-oneself or outside-oneself, providing the hallucinogenic experience of traversing other cosmic realms. To Siberian shamans, the Amanita mushroom may represent at least one key trigger for achieving spiritual flight, the soul’s experience of ecstasy, a trance-like state enabling him to reach other worlds, and obtain fantastic visions. (kulturCritic)
A point that still needs to be made is the prominent role reindeer played in Northern life, spirituality and shamanic practices. For these reindeer herding groups, reindeer have been and still are the cornerstone of life - the source of sustenance, clothing, tools, and transportation - and also the key to the sacred connection with the spiritual world.
A complex sacred alliance has existed for millennia between reindeer and their herders and various ancestor spirits, deities, and other animal totems. In the Russian Far East tales were told of the creator bringing reindeer from the stars as a gift to the earth. The Sami people believed that their reindeer created a bridge between this world and the spiritual world and they could travel between the worlds at will. A flying white reindeer with glowing antlers represented the sun in Sami cosmology - if taken down by a hunter, the light from the sun would be extinguished, just as it is in deep winter. Chaos, darkness, and death would soon ensue.
The epicenter of traditional Amanita use was Siberia, although researchers have also documented its use or presumed use by numerous cultures throughout Europe and Asia. During the migration across the Bering Straits, fly agaric entered Alaska along with the nomads, spread out across North America, and eventually reached as far south as Mesoamerica.
Siberia was, and still is, home to dozens of distinct ethnic groups, many of whom have retained their identities and shamanic practices to the present day. The word ‘shaman' - “one who knows or knows the spirits” -actually comes to us from the language of the Evenk, a small Tungus-speaking group of hunters and reindeer herders. “Shaman” originally referred specifically to a Siberian spiritual practitioner, one who would have been familiar with the ritual use of Amanita.
Sandy Krolich, PhD, shares his experience of living with shamans in Siberia with the following vivid description:
The shaman was a specialist in ecstatic trance. In altered states of consciousness, he could fly away and visit with the powers that animate this world. It is believed that the shaman’s soul was able to leave the body and travel to other parts of the cosmos, particularly to an upper world in the sky and To a lower world underground. This specialty provided him a unique status as technician of the sacred. In this respect he served as an intermediary figure between the seen and the unseen, healing sick members in his community, leading their souls at death to the other world, or discovering the source of larger social ills. And while the shaman had different tools to assist in achieving trance – herbs, drumming, chanting, and dancing – the techniques of ecstasy came to reside solely with him or her. In the final analysis, the shaman’s role was to restore balance in a world that was apparently going off track. (kulturCritic)
The herb most frequently used for insight and transcendental experiences by Siberian shamans was Amanita muscaria. This powerful entheogen (a visionary or religious hallucinogenic) induced spectacular visions or dreams, the feeling of flying, and the ability to see the future as well as all past life.
A few years later, through the drawings of the German-born American cartoonist Thomas Nast, Santa’s home was determined to be at the North Pole. Deep winter in the far north, when the sun would have almost or completely disappeared, must have been a time of intense physical and spiritual hardship. As the world sank into darkness, food supplies dwindled and people despaired of the sun ever returning. Mental health suffered terribly in the unrelenting darkness. In old Europe, this Winter Solstice time was known as Yule, from the Norse, Jul, meaning wheel. Winter meant death in the eternal cycle of life, death and rebirth.
This shamanic journey or soul flight is of paramount importance in shamanic practice - in order to interact with the spirits, the shaman has to be able to leave this world and enter theirs. The best documentation of Amanita-induced shamanic voyages comes from ethnographic studies of the Koryak, a tribal group from the Kamchatka Peninsula on the coast of the Bering Sea. These people venerate Amanita muscaria as a sacred gift from Big Raven, the first shaman and the progenitor of the human race.
On the night of the winter solstice Koryak shamans embark on a spiritual journey to the tree of life, an annual journey that is essential for the well-being of their communities. Under the influence of A. muscaria mushrooms, they “travel” to a large pine tree at the North Star. When they return from this “Tree of Life”, they bring solutions to all the unresolved problems of their people from the previous year. In this way, they bring the gift of reconciliation and wholeness to their group.