Why do Santa’s reindeer fly? The role of ancient mushroom-using shamans
by Mark Adams
These red and white mushrooms, Amanita muscaria, were found in an alpine forest around Creede, Colorado. A. muscaria was the “sacred mushroom” used by the ancient tribal peoples of pre-Christian northern Europe. Its bright coloring suggests the colors of Santa’s garments and of holiday lights.
Although most people see Christmas as a Christian holiday, most of the symbols and icons we associate with Christmas celebrations are actually derived from the shamanistic traditions of the tribal peoples of pre-Christian northern Europe.
The sacred mushroom of these people was the red and white Amanita muscaria, also known as “fly agaric.” This mushroom commonly is seen in books of fairy tales and usually is associated with magic and fairies. It contains potent hallucinogenic compounds once used by ancient peoples for insight and transcendental experiences. Most of the major elements of the modern Christmas celebration, such as Santa Claus, Christmas trees, magical reindeer and the giving of gifts, are originally based upon the traditions surrounding the harvest and consumption of this most sacred mushroom.
The World Tree
Ancient peoples, including the Lapps of modern-day Finland, and the Koyak tribes of the central Russian steppes, believed in the idea of a World Tree. The World Tree was seen as a kind of cosmic axis onto which the planes of the universe are fixed. The roots of the World Tree stretch down into the underworld, its trunk is the “middle earth” of everyday existence, and its branches reach upwards into the heavenly realm.
Amanita muscaria grows only under certain types of trees, mostly firs and evergreens. The cap of the mushroom is the fruit of the larger mycelium beneath the soil which exists in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the tree. To ancient people, this mushroom was literally “the fruit of the tree.”
The North Star was also considered sacred, since all other stars in the sky revolved around its fixed point. They associated this “Pole Star” with the World Tree and the central axis of the universe. The top of the World Tree touched the North Star, and the spirit of the shaman would climb the metaphorical tree, thereby passing into the realm of the gods. This is the true meaning of the star on top of the modern Christmas tree, and also the reason that the super-shaman Santa makes his home at the North Pole.
Ancient peoples were amazed at how this magical mushroom sprang from the earth without any visible seed. They considered this “virgin birth” to have been the result of the morning dew, which was seen as the “semen of the deity.” The silver tinsel we drape onto our modern Christmas tree represents this divine fluid.
Origin of phrase, “to get pissed”
The active ingredients of A. muscaria are not metabolized by the body, and so they remain active in the urine. In fact, it is safer to drink the urine of one who has consumed the mushroom than to eat the mushroom directly, as many of the toxic compounds are processed and eliminated on the first pass through the body.
It was common practice among ancient people to recycle the potent effects of the mushroom by drinking each other’s urine. The mushroom’s ingredients can remain potent even after six passes through the human body. Some scholars argue that this is the origin of the phrase “to get pissed,” as this urine-drinking activity preceded alcohol by thousands of years.
Reindeer were the sacred animals of these semi-nomadic people, as the reindeer provided food, shelter, clothing and other necessities. Reindeer are also fond of eating the mushroom; they will seek it out, then prance about while under its influence. Often the urine of tripped-out reindeer would be consumed for its psychedelic effects.
This effect goes the other way too, as reindeer also enjoy the urine of a human, especially one who has consumed the mushroom. In fact, reindeer will seek out human urine to drink, and some tribesmen carry sealskin containers of their own collected piss, which they use to attract stray reindeer back into the herd.
Legend of the flying reindeer and modern image of Santa
The effects of the A. muscaria usually include sensations of size distortion and flying. The feeling of flying could account for the legends of flying reindeer and legends of shamanic journeys included stories of winged reindeer, transporting their riders up to the highest branches of the World Tree.
Although the modern image of Santa Claus was created at least in part by the advertising department of Coca-Cola, in truth his appearance, clothing, mannerisms and companions all mark him as the reincarnation of these ancient mushroom-gathering shamans.
One of the side effects of eating A. muscaria is that one’s skin and facial features take on a flushed, ruddy glow. This is why Santa is always shown with glowing red cheeks and nose. Even Santa’s jolly “Ho, ho, ho!” is the euphoric laugh of one who has indulged in the magic fungus.
Santa also dresses like a mushroom gatherer. When it was time to go out and harvest the magical mushroom, the ancient shamans would dress much like Santa, wearing red and white fur-trimmed coats and long black boots. These peoples lived in dwellings made of birch and reindeer hide, called “yurts.” Somewhat similar to a tee-pee, the yurt’s central smoke-hole is often also used as an entrance. After gathering the mushroom from under the sacred trees where they appeared, the shamans would fill their sacks and return home. Climbing down the chimney-entrances, they would share out the mushroom’s gifts with those within.
The mushroom needs to be dried before being consumed; the drying process reduces the mushroom’s toxicity while increasing its potency. The shaman would guide the group in stringing the mushrooms they gathered and hanging them around the hearth-fire to dry. This tradition is echoed in the modern stringing of popcorn and other items.
The psychedelic journeys taken under the influence of the amanita were also symbolized by a stick reaching up through the smoke-hole in the top of the yurt. The smoke-hole was the portal where the spirit of the shaman exited the physical plane.
Santa’s famous magical journey, where his sleigh takes him around the whole planet in a single night, is developed from the “heavenly chariot,” used by the gods from whom Santa and other shamanic figures are descended. The chariot of Odin, Thor and even the Egyptian god Osiris is now known as the Big Dipper, which circles around the North Star in a 24-hour period.
In different versions of the ancient story, the chariot was pulled by reindeer or horses. As the animals grew exhausted, their mingled spit and blood falls to the ground, forming the mushrooms.
St Nicholas and Old Nick
Saint Nicholas is a legendary figure who supposedly lived during the fourth century. His cult spread quickly and Nicholas became the patron saint of many varied groups, including judges, pawnbrokers, criminals, merchants, sailors, bakers, travelers, the poor, and children.
Most religious historians agree that St Nicholas did not actually exist as a real person but was instead a Christianized version of earlier Pagan gods. Nicholas’ legends were mainly created out of stories about the Teutonic god called Hold Nickar, known as Poseidon to the Greeks. This powerful sea god was known to gallop through the sky during the winter solstice, granting boons to his worshippers below.
When the Catholic Church created the character of St Nicholas, they took his name from “Nickar” and gave him Poseidon’s title of “the Sailor.” There are thousands of churches named in St Nicholas’ honor, most of which were converted from temples to Poseidon and Hold Nickar. (As the ancient pagan deities were demonized by the Christian church, Hold Nickar’s name also became associated with Satan, known as “Old Nick!”)
Local traditions were incorporated into the new Christian holidays to make them more acceptable to the new converts. To these early Christians, Saint Nicholas became a sort of “super-shaman” who was overlaid upon their own shamanic cultural practices. Many images of Saint Nicholas from these early times show him wearing red and white, or standing in front of a red background with white spots, the design of the mushroom.
St Nicholas also adopted some of the qualities of the legendary “Grandmother Befana” from Italy, who filled children’s stockings with gifts. Her shrine at Bari, Italy, became a shrine to St Nicholas.
True spirit of Christmas
By better understanding the truths within these popular celebrations, we can better understand the modern world, and our place in it.
Many people in the modern world have rejected Christmas as being too commercial, claiming that this ritual of giving is actually a celebration of materialism and greed. Yet the true spirit of this winter festival lies not in the exchange of plastic toys, but in celebrating a gift from the earth: the fruiting top of a magical mushroom, and the revelatory experiences it can provide.
Instead of perpetuating outdated and confusing holiday myths, it might be more fulfilling to return to the original source of these seasonal celebrations. How about getting back to basics and enjoying some magical mushrooms with your loved ones this holiday season? What better gift can a family share than a little piece of love and enlightenment?
Below are references providing more in depth background on the role of mushrooms in the beginnings of some of our holiday traditions.
- The Hidden Meanings of Christmas, Mushrooms and Mankind, by James Arthur
- Santa Claus & the Amanita Muscaria, by Jimmy Bursenos
- “Who put the Fly Agaric into Christmas?,” Seventh International Mycological Congress, December 1999, Fungus of the Month
- “The Real Story of Santa, The Spore Print,” Los Angeles Mycological Society, December 1998
- Santa and those Reindeer: The Hallucinogenic Connection, The Physics of Christmas, by Roger Highfield
- “Fungi, Fairy Rings and Father Christmas,” North West Fungus Group, 1998 Presidential Address, by Dr Sean Edwards
- “Fly Agaric,” Tom Volk’s Fungus of the Month for December 1999
- “Father Christmas Flies on Toadstools,” New Scientist, December 1986
- “Psycho-mycological studies of amanita: From ancient sacrament to modern phobia,” by Jonathan Ott, Journal of Psychedelic Drugs; 1976
- “Santa is a Wildman,” LA Times, Jeffrey Vallance