It adorns the pages of childrens books like Alice in Wonderland, appears in Super Mario and the Smurfs, and numerous ornaments across the world. It seems the lurid red and white spotted psychedelic mushroom fly agaric, also known as amanita muscaria, is the iconic fungus in popular culture. After all, there is no other mushroom emoji.
What remains unclear for some is whether Father Christmas is a jolly personification of the widely misunderstood, dream-inducing toadstool. Or a nod to shamanic origins of the most important holiday in the Christian calendar. Or both. Or neither (the overwhelmingly most likely option).
Santa Claus has a composite identity, and morphology — that is, how he was constructed, according to writer and mycologist Lawrence Millman, “a part of which is perhaps an amanita-eating shaman from Lapland.”
The Saami people of modern Finland, who live within communities where their shamans are revered, still consume the enigmatic mushroom — occasionally through the drinking of the urine of reindeer who have an almost insatiable appetite for the fungus which induces the feeling that one is flying.
“Saami reindeer herders collect the mushroom and create trails with it, to make their reindeer go where they want them to go,” adds Millman. If people feel like they are flying after eating amanita, perhaps reindeer have a similar experience. It brings delirious, hypnotic, dissociative dream-like states that can degenerate into pure sedation depending on the dose. It will almost certainly bring on intense physical side effects if eaten raw.
Use of the mushroom, possibly the most recognizable of all, far precedes the idea of Christmas and the all-powerful man who, rather like a shaman, zips across the world in a single night delivering gifts to one and all. In one of his essays, Millman speculates that “the figure of a shaman entering a snow-covered yurt through the chimney filtered down to temperate Europe over the ages.”
Meanwhile, amanita — which contains the psychoactives muscimol and ibotenic acid – “probably entered the consciousness of us so-called civilized people via its charismatic color.” However, it was not consumed altogether so regularly, with other methods such as drumming often used to achieve holotropic states of consciousness.
“It does seem like a fantasy but there’s totally a connection,” says artist Matthew Stalton, who authored a viral New York Times article and accompanying illustrated video clip titled “Santa is a Psychedelic Mushroom” in 2017. Writer Michael Pollan and Joe Rogan shared the piece as it swiftly made a big impact. “Between flying reindeer and an all-knowing man in red, is it any surprise that Christmas has hallucinogenic roots?” the NYT tweeted.
“Once upon a time, Santa was related in lineage to a psychedelic mushroom-eating shaman from Lapland? Sure,” Stalton writes. “Maybe there’s more to Santa than we had previously acknowledged. Like his shamanic forefathers, perhaps he’s giving us a gift — one of knowledge and reflection, and one we certainly can’t buy.” But he acknowledges the difficulty of identifying a single root to any cultural curiosity or folkloric tradition. “The nature of who we are and where we come from is complex,” he adds.
Stalton first became aware of the more than tangential link after reading of a Harvard biology professor, Donald Pfister, who delivered Yuletide lectures on the anomaly. “Reindeers flying — are they flying, or are your senses telling you they’re flying because you’re hallucinating?” he told NPR. “So here’s a red fungus with white spots. And Santa Claus was dressed in red with white trim.”
Just another example of how the debate has arrived in the mainstream after other theories fell by the wayside. Like this one should. “Before 1931, there were many different depictions of Santa Claus around the world, including a tall gaunt man and an elf —there was even a scary Claus,” the Coca-Cola company says, denying reports it invented Father Christmas. “But in 1931, Coca-Cola commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to paint Santa for Christmas advertisements. Those paintings established Santa as a warm, happy character with human features, including rosy cheeks, a white beard, twinkling eyes and laughter lines.”
Most experts dismiss the possibility of a festive connection to the enigmatic entheogen, which they maintain is a myth. Writer and architect Clement Moore conjured the modern conception of Santa Claus in a poem, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, written in New York in 1822, which inspired the Coke ads. In it, he transformed medieval Saint Nicholas into an airborne spirit at the wheel of a group of reindeer soaring above the northern US during the middle of winter.
“There’s no link at all between Santa and fly agaric,” says Andy Letcher, author of Shroom: a Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom. He writes in the book that it is certain “Moore was drawing not upon any shamanistic folk memory, but upon his particular talent for creative writing.”
“The idea that Santa was a fly-agaric shaman was first suggested by the poet Robert Graves in the early 1970s, not a man known for historical accuracy or the need for evidence,” he adds. “The idea has been conclusively disproved. However, the fact that the myth persists, in spite of the evidence, suggests that it meets a contemporary need. Santa was emphatically not a fly agaric shaman, but he is now. That to me is rather interesting.”
And amanita — which grows throughout the northern hemisphere — continues to be a gift that keeps giving. People are increasingly realizing that since it does not contain psilocybin or psilocin, the most common psychoactive properties of magic mushrooms that were globally prohibited amid the war on drugs, it can be legally sold across most of the world.
“It can help with sleep, anxiety, depression, body pain and more,” says a recent press release for a new brand marketing the medicine. “The carefully extracted tincture harnesses amanita muscaria’s restorative powers to soothe the body and tackle physical distress.”
But how did it enter the consciousness of the western world centuries ago? Rather straightforwardly, it seems it was due to its charismatic color — documented by travelers who may not have always known of its psychotropic effects. “Its irresistible beauty has attracted the attention of artists and storytellers among many cultures,” says Antonio Cillero, partnerships leader at Ffungi, and co-founder of Mapping the Mind conference.
“This was further propelled by the resurgence of folk motives in art during the Romantic period, which resulted in its association with the magical world of fairies and gnomes.” This association cut through across the world and it became associated with the magical world and fairy tales, he adds.
“There are still many fascinating ethnomycological traditions around the world that remain to be explored properly documented and even some that are at risk of being lost, if we don’t act quickly.”
There may be much we still do not know about the fly agaric mushroom, but this article should put to bed any suggestions Santa Claus was created in its image.