How magic mushrooms inspired the story of Santa
It all began with some reindeer in Siberia.
The Santa Claus story only sounds normal because it’s so ubiquitous. If a person had never heard of Santa Claus, they might say his origin story sounds like a psychedelic fever dream. Well, some historians think Santa Claus does have psychedelic origins.
Christmas traditions vary all over the world. No doubt many of them have odd origins. But some of the most popular western Christmas traditions could be based on an ancient religious group’s obsession with eating magic mushrooms.
The clues come from the poem that first shaped our modern image of Santa: Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit From St. Nicholas. This iconic Christmas poem came out in 1844. And it is the first time flying reindeer are found in print.
The origins of flying reindeer could come from ancient Nordic shaman religions based on eating psychedelic mushrooms
Contrary to popular belief, Coca-Cola didn’t invent the modern image of a red and white Santa. They weren’t even the first soda company to feature Santa Claus in an ad. Instead, a mushroom called Amanita Muscaria is a more likely explanation as to why so many of the different Santa-style figures wear red clothes with white trim. Many different pre-Christian religions centered their winter celebrations on the Amanita Muscaria. These mushrooms are red with white dots.
The connection between Santa, Amanita Muscaria, and reindeer is a bit more eccentric. As seen in this video from the BBC, reindeer love to trip on Amanita Muscaria. Shamans would have likely noticed that these mushrooms made the reindeer act strange. But they’re poisonous to humans. The reindeer, who can handle the poison, pass along a lot of the psychoactive compound in Amanita Muscaria in their urine. Some scholars believe shamans drank the urine in order to trip.
This gave reindeer a kind of magical status in these traditions. The flying reindeer bind Santa to a long history of northern indigenous religions.
The connection between these ancient religions and modern Christmas traditions goes deeper than red and white costumes.
While the connection between Santa, his reindeer, and pre-Christian religion is interesting, it’s not enough to sell the theory that Santa is inspired by a mushroom. It’s not just Santa, though. A significant amount of western Christmas traditions have roots in psychedelic ritual.
Take the Evenks. Often, the lead shaman of this Siberian group would collect Amanita Muscaria from underneath evergreen trees. The Evenki figured out that drying the mushrooms also got rid of the toxicity so the shaman would put the Amanita Muscaria on the tree branches to dry. These red orbs hanging from the tree branches would have resembled a modern Christmas tree, except instead of cheap plastic, the decorations would have been powerful drugs.
As these peoples perfected their Amanita Muscaria rituals, they became more ornate. The shaman would pick and dry the mushrooms in a red suit with white trim. When they dried, he’d collect them in a sack, and deliver the gifts house to house. If the mushrooms weren’t quite dry enough, some sources say that people would put the mushrooms in a stocking above the fire.
A psychedelic mushroom inspired much of the Santa myth, but that’s not the entire story.
Most Santa Claus myths originate in places where Amanita Muscaria were common. That’s not a coincidence, but our modern Santa does have some similarities with the Turkish St. Nicholas as well.
Santa is a modern icon, that borrows from ancient myths from across the world. The continued evolution of this jolly character is a powerful symbol of human generosity and celebration during the darkest and coldest days of the year. And it’s possible, it all began with people drinking reindeer urine to get high on shrooms.