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Department of Geography
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UC Santa Barbara Geography / News & Events / Department News

December 20, 2011 - Is Santa the Personification of a Psychedelic Mushroom?

According to some conservative academics, no, but the idea sure provides food for thought, if you'll pardon the pun. “Amanita muscaria, commonly known as the fly agaric or fly amanita, is a poisonous and psychoactive basidiomycete fungus, one of many in the genus Amanita. Native throughout the temperate and boreal regions of the Northern Hemisphere, Amanita muscaria has been unintentionally introduced to many countries in the Southern Hemisphere, generally as a symbiont with pine plantations, and is now a true cosmopolitan species. It associates with various deciduous and coniferous trees. The quintessential toadstool, it is a large white-gilled, white-spotted, usually deep red mushroom, one of the most recognizable and widely encountered in popular culture” (Wikipedia: Amanita muscaria).

The idea that Amanita muscaria led to the modern story of Santa Claus and his reindeer is based on the fact that the mushroom is hallucinogenic, that it is red with white spots, that it is associated with pine trees, that Laplanders and reindeer like to get “high” on it, and that Siberian shamans used it for recreational and religious purposes: “The ancient Shamans of Siberia would go to the houses of the people in the community on the winter solstice and bring to them the Amanita muscaria mushroom…it was their tradition. The Shaman, dressing in the colors of the mushroom (red with white trim) and carrying a huge bag full of mushrooms that he had picked and dried during the previous season (enough for the entire community), would go door to door and give to the community the mushroom experience. If the main doors to the houses were snowed over (which they often were during the winter time), the Shaman would enter the houses through the secondary entrance, which just happens to be the smoke-hole in the roof or the chimney. And because these Amanita muscaria mushrooms are often dried before ceremonial consumption (allowing the shaman to consume more), traditions of drying the mushrooms also came about. Even to this day, it is a common practice for people to stack their mushrooms in socks and hang them over the fireplace overnight to dry them out” (source).

“The Shaman, Amanita muscaria mushrooms, pine trees, reindeer, Saint Nicholas, Santa's bag of goodies, the fireplace entrance and exit, Santa's colors, the mysterious gifts under the tree, and stocking stuffers are all neatly interconnected and they are all indigenous to Siberia, Russia and the Shamanic traditions that originated there” (Ibid.). “The ethnobotanist Jonathan Ott has suggested that the idea of Santa Claus and tradition of hanging stockings over the fireplace is based centrally upon the fly agaric mushroom itself. With its generally red and white color scheme, he argues that Santa Claus's suit is related to the mushroom. He also draws parallels with flying reindeer: reindeer had been reported to consume the mushroom and prance around in an intoxicated manner afterwards” (Wikipedia: Ibid.).

The connection between A. muscaria and modern Santa makes a colorful theory, but some academics dismiss it: “Now some say that certain stories are simply too wondrous to question in this magical season. Others have no such compunction, like Ronald Hutton, a history professor at the University of Bristol. ‘If you look at the evidence of Siberian shamanism, which I've done,’ Hutton said, ‘you find that shamans didn't travel by sleigh, didn't usually deal with reindeer spirits, very rarely took the mushrooms to get trances, didn't have red and white clothes.’ And they didn't even run around handing out gifts. ‘The Santa Claus we know and love was invented by a New Yorker, it really is true,’ Hutton said. ‘It was the work of Clement Clarke Moore, in New York City in 1822, who suddenly turned a medieval saint into a flying, reindeer-driving spirit of the Northern midwinter.’ And Moore brought that beloved Santa Claus to life in his poem, ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas,’ otherwise known as ‘The Night Before Christmas’” (source).

But Hutton doesn’t get the last word. “Every point [Hutton] makes to dispel the Muscaria-Santa-Christmas connection is false...Hutton’s final claim that awareness of Siberian shamanism came after the evolution of our Santa Claus is irrelevant. Things have evolved without public knowledge regularly, including ancient historical memes in current symbology and ritual. The Christmas tree and the date 25th December are both pagan in origin (utilized initially to appeal to the pagans of the time). Although given a cursory nod by apologists today, for the last 2000 years most Christians did not have awareness of those pagan origins. The majority awareness does not necessarily precede the appropriation. He has used a logical fallacy” (source).

Is this all a flight of fancy? Whether or not you think the link between psychedelic mushrooms and Santa and his reindeer is naughty or nice, the UCSB Department of Geography wishes you a cool Yule and a frantic First!

“He'll come a flyin' from a higher place / And fill the stocking by the fire place / So you'll, have a yule that's cool / Have a yule that's cool / Yeah, cool yule” (“Cool Yule” by Louis Armstrong, 1953)

Article by Bill Norrington

Image 1 for article titled "Is Santa the Personification of a Psychedelic Mushroom?"
Amanita muscaria. It is commonly referred to as fly agaric because of the medieval belief that it repelled flies, although an alternative derivation proposes that the term fly- refers not to insects as such but rather the delirium resulting from consumption of the fungus. This is based on the medieval belief that flies could enter a person's head and cause mental illness. It was used as an intoxicant and entheogen by the peoples of Siberia and has a religious significance in these cultures. The American banker and amateur ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson proposed the fly agaric was in fact the Soma talked about in the ancient Rig Veda texts of India; since its introduction in 1968, this theory has gained both followers and detractors in anthropological literature (Wikipedia: Amanita muscaria)
Image 2 for article titled "Is Santa the Personification of a Psychedelic Mushroom?"
Children play on Jose de Creeft's sculpture Alice in Wonderland in Central Park, New York. The book “Alice in Wonderland” was written by Lewis Carroll after he had experimented with Amanita muscaria, and the changes in size and time perception described in the novel are characteristic hallucinogenic effects of eating the mushroom (Ibid.)
Image 3 for article titled "Is Santa the Personification of a Psychedelic Mushroom?"
“Our modern version of Santa is an amalgam of Northern European forest-dwelling pagan traditions of the Green Man coupled with early Christian beliefs and stories, and all leavened with way too much twentieth century commercial branding. Santa’s current suit of red and white became the widely accepted norm only a century ago and was given a boost after a 1930’s advertising campaign by Coca Cola. The campaign featured a jolly bewhiskered Santa in bright red vestments sucking down a bottle of Coke” (http://mushrooms4health.com/blog/). Ironically, cocaine was a major ingredient in the original Coca Cola recipe
Image 4 for article titled "Is Santa the Personification of a Psychedelic Mushroom?"
“Fly Agaric is a favorite food of Reindeer who will seek the toadstools in places such as Siberia out even under deep snow. Some associations have been made between tripping Reindeer and the legend of Santa Claus. It would certainly explain flying reindeer with names such as Prancer, Dancer, Cupid, and Comet!” (http://scienceray.com/biology/fly-agaric-and-the-red-nose-reindeer/)
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