With wide eyes and anticipation, many stare to the skies on the night of December 24th to watch for the outline of a tiny sleigh and eight flying reindeer. But, how did Santa first come about?
Hints of Santa can be spotted in the tales from numerous regions, cultures and belief systems throughout the world. St. Nicholas, known as Sint Nikolaas or Sinterklaas in Dutch, provides the origin of the name ‘Santa Claus’ and links him with piety, giving and the bringing of light out of darkness. His mischievous elf or gnome helpers track back to the Nisse in Denmark, tomte in Sweden, or tonttu in Finland. In the early 1800’s Santa’s presence was formally established in the United States by Washington Irving in his Knickerbocker Tales and by Clement Moore who wrote ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ more commonly known as ‘The Night before Christmas’
A lesser known Santa story starts with the hallucinogenic mushroom, Amanita muscaria. More commonly known as the fly agaric, Amanita muscaria is a fungus native to temperate and boreal regions of the northern hemisphere. They are readily identifiable from their bright red tops that are often covered in white, warty spots. Amanita muscaria belongs to the Basidiomycota and they show the basic mushroom growth form of this group with prominent white gills on the underside and white oval spores visible using microscopy. Images of Amanita muscaria can be seen in Alice in Wonderland, the Smurfs and as the growth tonic in Super Mario Brothers. The genus Amanita includes numerous deadly species including the destroying angel and the death cap. Amanita muscaria is poisonous but rarely leads to death. The two prominent toxins in Amanita muscaria are muscimol and the related amino acid ibotenic acid which both accumulate in higher concentrations in the cap of the mushroom. These toxins mimic neurotransmitters and stimulate intoxication and in extreme cases, hallucination.
Amanita muscaria was used historically by reindeer herding tribes in Northern Siberia, Norway and Sweden in spiritual and cultural ways. Shaman would collect the brightly colored mushrooms found under the boughs of birch and pine trees. For preservation they would ornament the pine branches with drying Amanita muscaria or maybe hang them in ‘stockings’ over the fire. In these far north regions, darkness prevails through the winter months and the winter solstice at the end of December gives cause to celebrate. The Shamans would visit tribespeople, often dropping through the smoke hole in the tent because snow blocked the doors. They would deliver news, medicines and… Amanita muscaria. In addition to the uplifting intoxicating effects that may have come with the mushrooms, Amanita muscaria also likely provided a much-needed dose of vitamin D.
Shaman had to compete with reindeer to find the fly agarics as reindeer will preferentially feed on the bright read mushrooms. After consumption, reindeer show clearly altered behaviors including playfully leaping and running. Toxic ibotenic acid from the mushroom quickly moves through the reindeer’s body and can be released in high concentrations in urine. Evidence supports that people would sometimes consume reindeer urine to benefit from this naturally distilled intoxicant source. Tales of flying reindeer seem like a perfectly reasonable outcome of drinking hallucinatory mushroom urine.
The image of flying reindeer delivering a heavily bearded, sack carrying, red and white adorned spiritual well-wisher who brings light to the darkness of winter seems to fit a little too well within these historic traditions of those living closest to the North Pole. The most apparent evidence that these stories infiltrated modern Christmas tradition can be found in early European holiday cards and decorations. On one card a Santa-like Nisse gnome with long white beard can be found carting a giant red topped mushroom. Child chimney sweeps in London are shown with fly agaric mushrooms falling out of their bags alongside a happy holiday message. Christmas tree images include red and white spotted mushrooms among their decorations as a sign of good luck in the new year.
So, as you and your little ones look to the skies this month, may the spirit of Santa remind you of our brightly colored fungal friend and the integrated cultural histories that fuel our modern holiday traditions.