We wish you a trippy Christmas
Could ritual use of psychedelic mushrooms be the source of the Santa Claus legend?
Judith Gabriel Vinje
The way we think of Santa Claus, with his bag of toys, the reindeer pulling the sleigh through the sky on a wild midnight ride, using a chimney to enter people’s homes—may have originated among the indigenous peoples of the Arctic Circle, including the Sámi of Norway and Finland, as well as many Siberian peoples.
Such a familiar picture may have been born of the tripping mind of Northern folk hallucinating after ingesting psychedelic mushrooms.
The Sámi, as well as many other Arctic peoples, have a tribal shaman, who functions as a medicine man or a spiritual guide. On the night of the winter solstice, for instance, the shaman would gather several hallucinogenic mushrooms called Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric in English. A bite or two would launch him into a spiritual journey on which he could traverse spiritual dimensions.
In addition to inducing hallucinations, the mushrooms stimulate the muscular system, leading to temporary superhuman strength. Legend has it that the Viking berserkers got their wild strength by consuming the mushrooms.
The wilding effect is the same for animals. Any reindeer that took a bite of mushroom would become high and mighty, often jumping so high that they looked like they were flying.
Fly agaric is the red mushroom with white spots that is frequently depicted in Northern lands around Christmas. It got its strange name because it was once mixed with milk and used to kill flies. Sweden especially makes use of the happy-looking red domes with white spots as a seasonal symbol. Most commonly, they grow under pine trees, and their spores travel about on pine seeds.
They are truly toxic, but they become less potent when they are dried out. The shaman would often hang the harvested mushrooms on lower branches of the tree they were growing under so they could dry out. Could this be the origin of Christmas-tree decorations?
Then again, the shaman might also put them in a stocking and hang it over the fire to allow them to dry. Could that have anything to do with the custom of hanging stockings by the fire?
Most significantly, the mushrooms were hallucinogenic—they caused psychedelic flights of fantasy. At the same time, they contain fatal toxins. One way to remove the poisons was to let reindeer eat them. Their digestive system would filter out most of the bad stuff. Thus, when humans consumed the deer urine, they would experience a safe intoxication or “high.”
According to mushroom expert Lawrence Millman, the shaman would make use of the Amanita muscaria’s psychoactive effects to perform healing rituals. Using the mushroom as a drug to induce a spiritual experience would enable the shaman to act as an intermediary between the spirit and human world, bringing gifts of healing and problem solving.
To top the scenario, the shaman might distribute the mushrooms to the people celebrating the winter solstice.
Along that line, there is one theory that explains Santa’s descent down the chimney to leave his gifts. Often, with snow blocking the doorway, the only way the shaman could reach the people inside the Siberian yurt was to climb down the chimney, according to some interpretations of the custom’s origins.
And so, we must ask ourselves: could the red-suited, big-bellied wise one who goes about in a carriage drawn by flying reindeer, defying limitations of space and time, climbing down a chimney to leave his gifts—originate in the shamanic culture of the Far North? Could it all be the result of someone’s over-indulgence in red-hatted fungi?
If so, we wish you… Happy Mushrooming! Don’t fly off the planet!
Minneapolis-born Judith Gabriel Vinje has been a journalist for nearly 50 years, including a stint as a war correspondent. Now a Los Angeles resident, she started writing for Norway Times in 1998, and has been with the paper through its merges and changes. An active member of Sons of Norway, Edvard Grieg Lodge, Glendale Calif., she is also a member of Ravens of Odin, a Viking reenactment group on the West Coast, and writes frequently about Viking Age subjects.
This article originally appeared in the December 14, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.