[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his Christmas, like many before it and many yet to come, the story of Santa and his flying reindeer will be told, including how the “jolly old elf” flies on his sleigh throughout the entire world in one night, giving gifts to all the good children.
But according to one theory, the story of Santa and his flying reindeer can be traced to an unlikely source: hallucinogenic or “magic” mushrooms.
“Santa is a modern counterpart of a shaman, who consumed mind-altering plants and fungi to commune with the spirit world,” said John Rush, an anthropologist and instructor at Sierra College in Rocklin, Calif.
According to the theory, the legend of Santa derives from shamans in the Siberian and Arctic regions who dropped into locals’ teepeelike homes with a bag full of hallucinatory mushrooms as presents in late December, Rush said.
“As the story goes, up until a few hundred years ago these practicing shamans or priests connected to the older traditions would collect Amanita muscaria (the Holy Mushroom), dry them, and then give them as gifts on the winter solstice,” Rush told LiveScience. “Because snow is usually blocking doors, there was an opening in the roof through which people entered and exited, thus the chimney story.”
But that’s just the beginning of the symbolic connections between the Amanita muscaria mushroom and the iconography of Christmas, according to several historians and ethnomycologists, or people who study the influence fungi has had on human societies. Of course, not all scientists agree that the Santa story is tied to a hallucinogen.
- Presents under the tree
In his book “Mushrooms and Mankind” (The Book Tree, 2003) the late author James Arthur points out that Amanita muscaria, also known as fly agaric, lives throughout the Northern Hemisphere under conifers and birch trees, with which the fungi —which is deep red with white flecks — has a symbiotic relationship. This partially explains the practice of the Christmas tree, and the placement of bright red-and-white presents underneath, which look like Amanita mushrooms, he wrote.
“Why do people bring pine trees into their houses at the Winter Solstice, placing brightly colored (red and white) packages under their boughs, as gifts to show their love for each other … ?” he wrote. “It is because, underneath the pine bough is the exact location where one would find this ‘Most Sacred’ substance, the Amanita muscaria, in the wild.”
Reindeer are common in Siberia, and seek out these hallucinogenic fungi, as the area’s human inhabitants have been known to do. Donald Pfister, a biologist who studies fungi at Harvard University, suggests that Siberian tribesmen who ingested fly agaric may have hallucinated into thinking that reindeer were flying.
- “Flying” reindeer
“At first glance, one thinks it’s ridiculous, but it’s not,” said Carl Ruck, a professor of classics at Boston University. “Whoever heard of reindeer flying? I think it’s becoming general knowledge that Santa is taking a ‘trip’ with his reindeer,” Ruck said.
“Amongst the Siberian shamans, you have an animal spirit you can journey with in your