Who is Santa Claus really, St.Nicholas? Maybe ..
At this most wonderful and festive time of the year there’s a lot going on, you’ve got family to organize, gifts to buy and the cold and wet to ward off. But take your time to have a read on why this period known as Christmas and that most beloved figure, Santa Claus, may have been inspired by eastern European shamanism and the Amanita Muscaria, or Fly Agaric, a "toxic" and hallucinogenic mushroom native to large parts of Europe, Asia and America. You might not know it by name but I'd bet my cotton socks you’ll recognize it by sight.
How does this mushroom relate to Santa? Well let’s take a little look at his history over the years to give us an inkling. Commonly, Santa Claus, AKA Sinterklaas, AKA Big Poppa, is believed to be or be based on one Saint Nicholas, a Christian Bishop of Myra (Roman Empire Province) who was known and canonized for the many miracles he performed, but mostly for the secret gifts he would bestow upon the less fortunate. This link originated from the 19th century poem “A visit from St. Nicholas or Twas the night before Christmas”. That’s where the connections to our modern Santa end, visually at least, as he didn’t wear red, he didn’t come through the chimney, he wasn’t an overweight chap with rosy cheeks and he certainly didn’t drive no sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. I imagine they can be pretty hard to find in a warm Mediterranean climate.
Way before the time of Coca-Cola
So the inspiration of Santa doesn’t seem to fully lie with good ol Saint Nick so that leaves us still pondering, where did all the real influence come from? It’s at this point im sure many of you know the answer, Coca Cola… and if this were a gameshow the buzzer would have just gone off in defeat, the drinks company is only responsible for adding the rosy cheeks and sizeable girth to the depictions of Santa that had already been settled on in the 18th century. He was already an old, bearded man dressed in red and white who would bring you gifts down the chimney, where are the missing pieces then? Well, this is where the story of Santa, takes a sudden swan dive into the clutches of the Amanita Muscaria and it’s shamanistic users.
First things first, have a look at that gorgeous specimen above, the colour palette is decidedly similar no? Okay okay that’s an easy one, but as we delve further into these stories it’s rather tricky to deny it’s entanglement within the Santa Clause legend. To find the answers we need lets jump over to the Arctic Circle, specifically to the lands of Siberia and Finland. It’s a cold, snowy night, winter solstice, and the tribe is gathered round in their largest yurt (a traditional tent made from animal hides) fire smouldering in the hearth, it's a spiritual time of reflection, over the past year and their wishes for the upcoming when the man they have been waiting for arrives, descending through the hole (or chimney) at the top of the yurt bearing “gifts” in the form of knowledge wrought from his Amanita experiences.
Shamans, mushrooms and reindeer urine
So we have a shaman coming down a chimney bearing gifts, but there are still a lot of questions left unanswered and definitely more details to fill in. In the lands of Siberia and Finland, the native shamans used the magical Amanita Muscaria to induce trances and hallucinations. When collecting the mushrooms the shamans would dress in red robes with white trim or dots to honour the mushroom itself and carry a large sack to store them all. The Amanita is most commonly found growing under pine trees, the same pine trees we chop down for christmas trees. Being highly toxic the Amanita isn’t safe to consume straight away, the shamans had two main techniques to reduce the harm of the mushrooms, the first method was to simply place them in a sock above the fire and leave them to dry…*cough* stockings.
The other method was to collect the urine of reindeer who had consumed the mushroom, easier than it sounds as reindeer have a rabid appetite for Amanita’s and could easily be fed them by the shamans, the Amanita being their most favourite treat. The passing of the mushroom through the reindeers stomach would detoxify it enough for human consumption but still maintain its hallucinogenic potential. The mushrooms are also a surprisingly strong muscle stimulant, can you imagine the hordes of super-strong reindeer high of their nut prancing across the snowy tundras jumping higher than they normally would, the answer to flying reindeer smacks us square in the face. The legends state that the Shamans on their reindeer-pulled sled would “fly” to the North Star to retrieve knowledge before bringing it back to their tribes and sharing it out.
The connections cant be ignored
As the pagan traditions spread across europe they coalesced with many people’s, specifically the Druids of Britain and both Germanic and Nordic tribes who took the legend into their own beliefs. Over time these traditions took new forms but certain symbols stayed constant, as up to the early 20th century in both England and Germany the symbol for a chimney sweep was the fly agaric and many christmas artworks from the time depict chimney sweeps or children on or around the mushroom with little explanation added as to why.
Legends change over time but the meaning remains
As the years passed the legend of St. Nicholas and a shamanistic Santa have been intertwined whether people are aware of it or not, yes coincidences exist but the sheer amount in this case makes it hard to argue that the shamans of Finland and Siberia did not play a role in our modern day tales of Santa. The reason these shamans ate these mushrooms and took these trips? Self-reflection and healing, for both themselves and their tribesman, this was a time of the year where people came together to ride out the winter and share warmth, both mentally and physically. Perhaps this is the Christmas we should be adhering to.
As an oversight, it should be mentioned that there are historians and academics out there who refute or deny the impact of the Amanita on depictions of Santa, but does it matter if it’s true or not? Christmas is meant to be a magical time of the year and the legend of the Fly Agaric only adds to it and helps to anchor what this period should be about in the first place, coming together!
Christmas/ End Of Year DEALS