What Santa Claus and magic mushrooms have in common will forever change your childhood
He spends 364 days of the year running a sweatshop in the North Pole, forcing unpaid laborers to build toys for Christian children they’ll never meet or even see. One night a year he stuffs his folding girth into his yuletide vehicle, and brutally whips the asses of his prisoner reindeer, forcing them into flight.
From there he spends the evening invading people’s homes through their ceilings, leaving them material gifts, and devouring any sweet offerings they might have left out.
We all know and love Santa Claus — Mr. Claus, Chris Cringle, Old Saint Nick. He’s an instantly recognizable holiday super-celeb: big and rotund, garbed in a bright red suit with white trim, jolly, mirthful, full of energy and good cheer, usually sitting on some glittering, tinsel-strewn throne at the heart of a mega-mall.
This is the champion of Jesus Christ’s birthday, the pen-ultimate Christian holiday — a man beloved by families everywhere, adored internationally for the spirit he represents. The spirit of Christmas.
But what if we told you that the true folkloric roots of Santa Claus have nothing to do with Jesus Christ or the Christian faith at all? What if we told you that the jolly red giant actually comes from pagan rituals involving the consumption of psychedelic mushrooms?
That’s the kind of talk that’ll get you ex-communicated in a hurry. It’s blasphemy! The clergy will profess. Clearly, these bizarre theories are just of part of the “War on Christmas”, another liberal attempt at smearing the last accepted vestige of a classic Christian holiday.
Well, allow us to paint you a picture…
You live on the arctic tundra in the deep north, nothing for miles except flat, barren blankets of snow. It is winter and your little lodge has been snowed in for many months, leaving open only the smoke hole at the top. Your mother has become very sick, the cold weather is getting to her and she has fallen ill, unable to get up and out of bed, and things don’t seem to be going well. You’re worried.
But, luckily, the solstice is near. And soon, you’ll have company.
Out of the cold, bleak distance, a reindeer drawn sled emerges. It glides across that stark tundra, flying almost, growing larger and larger until it pulls to a stop beside your half-buried home. Out steps a large, gristly man, dressed in a red suit covered in white splotches. He grabs his bag, and steps off the sled, making way for the smoke hole of your lodge — the chimney — the only available entrance.
The big man descends into your residence, slowly and carefully to assess the situation. He asks you a few questions about your ill mother, and examines her carefully, mindfully, with a strange, keen gaze. Then, he pulls several objects out of his bag, including a reindeer skin drum, herbs and medicines.
The shaman begins to chant — slowly, dazedly — over your mother. He beats his drum, administers herbs, and hums in a deep and distant drone.
When the ceremony is complete, the shaman packs up his bag, lifts his brightly garbed girth, and gets ready to depart for the next house — his next patient. But before he leaves, it is customary to compensate him for his services: reindeer meat and/or reindeer fat are both acceptable forms of payment. No traveler’s checks, please, he says, with a wink.
Then he’s gone. Leaving your mother feeling better (hopefully), leaving you with a sense of security, and leaving with your last chunk of reindeer fat, disappearing into the fogs of lore.
It’s an uncanny analogue for the modern Santa Claus — an historical mirror image. Only, this one is bringing medicine and spiritual guidance, instead of iPhones and Fleshlights.
These Shaman actually existed once upon a time throughout the arctic regions of Siberia and Finland. They were respected and admired members of their communities, that offered advice and helped heal sick people. And they were synonymous with the psychedelic mushroom Amenita muscaria (aka Fly Agaric).
“There is a circumpolar belief that if a shamanic individual eats Amenita muscaria, he becomes Amenita muscaria,” says Lawrence Millman. “And in Lapland (Northern Finland) Shaman did travel by reindeer drawn sleds, and traditionally they would eat Amenita Muscaria when they did.”
Hence the red and white regalia.
Millman is the author of 17 books and is an expert on oral storytelling. He is an ethnographer, a traveler, adventurer, a sometimes-professor, an arctic explorer and psychonaut. Millman spent time in Siberia and Northern Lapland researching the many and varied ways in which arctic lore is tied to the legend of Santa Claus. He spent time with Lap (or “Sami”) locals, listening to their stories, interviewing them about the Sami shaman of old, and even, exploring the otherworldly realms of Amenita muscaria with them.
“Amenita muscaria is one of my favorite mushrooms,” Millman confided. It produces great feelings of euphoria he says, and, has one particularly exciting side effect.
“It makes you feel like you’re flying,” Millman says.
This strange and altogether beautiful fungus, is so deeply tied to Santa Claus and the legends built into him, that it’s hard to imagine him existing without this mushroom as inspiration. Not only does it look like Santa – big and bulbous, red and white – but, interestingly, it also only grows at the base of deciduous and coniferous trees. Like an organic little Christmas gift, that pops up mysteriously overnight, to enlighten and uplift anyone lucky enough to happen upon it.
Reindeer also delight in eating Amenita muscaria. So much so, Millman says, that reindeer herders will often use them to guide their reindeer, laying the mushrooms out like a trail of breadcrumbs across the tundra. But if the herd finds a bunch of them on their own, herding the animals can become nearly impossible.
“There’s several documented instances of reindeer being herded and then happening upon a patch of Amenita muscaria, eating the mushrooms, and then they’re no longer herdable for several days or so,” describes Millman. They’ll leap around (as if they’re flying) and wander dazedly, aimlessly and stoned.
Millman thinks that as Lap culture started trickling down into Europe, it began to blend with the cultures there; the folklore behind the Sami shamans started to percolate into the folklore of other peoples, mixing with their native legends, holidays, and religious figures as it did. This is likely how the Sami shaman and St. Nicholas became entangled, and how those mushroom fueled solstice sleigh rides became synonymous with Christmas-time.
But, tragically, the original Sami shamanic practices were culturally extinguished. Hung out to dry (literally) by Christian missionaries.
“The Christians came to Lapland in the early 19th century,” explains Millman. “And the Sami shamans that refused to give up the old faith were hung.”
It would have been a grim scene to witness: Santa Claus dancing on the end of a rope, eyes bulging, choking to death before Christian “holy men” for refusing to give up his native religion. But it happened. And, when the old Santa Claus was dead, hanging lifelessly from that rope, those Christians resurrected him and adopted his image as their Christmas mascot.
“Christians can be like that,” says Millman, darkly.
The skeptics out there will disagree with all this, of course. According to them it was the poet Clement Clarke Moore who is really, truly, singlehandedly responsible for the legend of Santa Claus. They claim that Moore, and Moore alone, came up with the idea of a big man in a red suit riding a reindeer drawn sleigh, descending chimneys and consuming offerings left behind for him before flying off to the next house. Moore’s poem, “The Night Before Christmas”, is he first documented instance of these legends, skeptics say, and therefore must be the genesis.
But, if you take Occam’s Razor to that theory it simply falls apart. It makes a lot more sense to imagine that the legend of Santa grew out of Sami shaman, who once actually flew across the arctic on a reindeer drawn sleds, tripping face and helping everyone they came across. It makes sense that that legend filtered down and into European culture as time passed and as people moved around, and that it blended into other stories and holidays that coincided with the solstice.
Either that, or it was just one American poet, who coincidentally pulled all of this out of his ass one winter night in 1823.
Regardless, if Santa Claus truly was a Sami Shaman, his image has been irrecoverably corrupted by capitalism. What was once a wholesome, spiritual character, who distributed medicine and advice to his friends and neighbors, has been twisted and made evil by commercial America. Today, Santa is a figure synonymous with materialism. He encourages families to spend more money than they’ve got, on things they don’t need.
“The traditional shamanic Santa is a lot healthier than our modern, fat, capitalistic one, whose basic function is to indicate the prospect of numerous gifts,” says Millman, an edge of contempt creeping into his voice. “The evolutionary process, at least in my mind, has gone from a Lap shaman who’s offering advice and curing diseases, to a big fat contemporary capitalist."
It’s a tragic story, really. A sad saga of a good shaman turned evil businessman — a tale of degradation and corruption, of twisted morals and compelled faith. A story of a fall from heaven.
“I think of Santa as an anagram for Satan,” Millman says. Santa has become a figure that bends the minds of children and coaxes parents into giving up their paychecks for a holiday shopping spree.
As a culture, it seems that we have fallen ill, and the modern Santa isn’t helping solve the problem. In fact, he’s promoting it.
If only there was some kind of mushroom shaman that could help...
But, alas, the last of the Sami shaman died around 1800. And with them went their knowledge, their medicines and their traditions. Nowhere is this practice carried on — not in Lapland, not in Siberia, and certainly not in the modern west. There is no one who can save us now.