We all know Santa Claus as he is portrayed in thousands of commercials, at your favorite shopping malls, and on countless reams of wrapping paper and Christmas cards. He’s big and dressed in red and white, has a flowing white beard and rosy cheeks, and is just about the nicest, jolliest guy around.
Hold on, though. Have you ever stopped to think about how Santa became so jolly?
Also, where do his red and white clothes and his reindeer come from, exactly?
“Well,” you say, “I’m sure they’re rooted in some kind of European folktale from long ago.”
Yes, we say. But we guarantee that you haven’t heard this folktale before. It involves a shaman, psychedelic mushrooms, and reindeer urine - and that’s just the beginning.
Welcome to the version of Christmas you never knew existed.
But first, let’s fly back into the past for a little peek at the man himself as we know him best.
Who Is Santa Claus?
While you may call him “Santa Claus,” or perhaps simply, “Santa,” you’ve probably heard other people call him “Saint Nicholas” or “Saint Nick.” These names are actually more accurate because they refer back to the real person who first originated what we perceive now as a commercialized character.
According to historians, St. Nicholas was born around 280 AD in an area that is now a part of modern-day Turkey. He was famous for his kindness and generosity. In fact, he was so generous, that he allegedly gave up his inheritance so he could travel about the countryside helping people less fortunate than himself.
Over time, St. Nicholas became quite popular. He was known as the protector of children (that will be important later) as well as sailors, and, though he was dead by this time, his popularity was at its peak during the Renaissance. Even afterwards, when worshiping saints went out of fashion, he was still much talked about and venerated in certain countries across Europe.
Before St. Nicholas became the Santa Claus whom we all know and love, he was Sinter Klaas. The Dutch called him this because it was a shortened version of their name for St. Nicholas: Sint Nikolaas.
By the end of the 1700s and the beginning of the 1800s, Dutch immigrants were observing the anniversary of his death in the United States and bringing woodcuts of his image over. These woodcuts, distributed by John Pintard to the New York Historical Society in 1804, featured a fireplace with stockings hanging over it, bulging with fruit and toys, in the background.
Sinter Klaas, as he was depicted back then, looked quite different from what he looks like in popular culture today. If you saw his likeness, you might have seen him wearing yellow stockings and a blue tri-cornered hat - a significant departure from his now traditional black boots, red suit, and red and white stocking cap.
Santa Claus, At Last
After this initial introduction into American culture, it didn’t take long for the Dutch version of Saint Nick to morph into Santa Claus: a jovial, lovable, rotund Father Christmas, ready to judge which children have been naughty and which ones have been nice, and hear their Christmas wishes in the middle of a noisy, bustling shopping mall.
Santa Claus And The Amanita Muscaria Mushroom
Now what does a benevolent old saint from a couple thousand years ago have to do with psychedelic mushrooms, you may wonder. To answer that question, we must go to the northern reaches of the world - almost to the North Pole, itself - and back centuries, to a time of shamans and magic.
Not real magic, of course. But the people who lived in Siberia once believed in such a thing. The priests who taught them about it and kept up with the pagan rituals of the non-Christian world were called shamans.
In fact, by the time you finish reading this article, you might just think that Santa Claus is himself a shaman. Here’s why.
Shamans And Magic Reindeer
These shamans - a word that originates in the Russian tongue - had some curious habits. First of all, they were known to ingest psychedelics in an attempt to achieve a chimeric connection with local Siberian wildlife. “Chimeric” means “formed from parts of various animals.” Basically, the shaman would (at least in their minds) undergo rituals to take on a hybrid role of a human crossed with an animal.
Among the local Siberian wildlife were reindeer. Reindeer were known to ingest psychedelics, as well. They would commonly be found eating one called an Amanita muscaria mushroom - which also happens to be bright red and white in color.
Here’s where it gets even weirder. The shamans knew that the reindeer ate these mushrooms, so they would actually drink reindeer urine to get some of the “high-flying” effects of the psychedelics. Furthermore, initiates into the shamans’ religion would, in turn, drink the shamans’ urine to get the same effects.
Who knows what the shamans saw when they were high on reindeer urine. Did they feel like they were flying? We don’t know, but we do know that this was all part of a “journey” they took as part of their shamanic rituals. It sort of makes sense when you compare it to Santa’s journey in his sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. That’s definitely something that someone under an inordinately heavy psychedelic influence might experience.
Winter Solstice Gifts And Chimney Shenanigans
Okay, so we may have an explanation for the red and white suit that Santa Claus wears and his connection to magical reindeer. But there’s more to this mushroom story.
Historians say that those same shamans who drank psychedelic mushroom-laced reindeer urine and attempted to enter a plane of existence where they became hybrid humans and animals, used to do some other, slightly creepy stuff.
For example, they would give Amanita muscaria mushrooms to the people who lived in their village as presents on the winter solstice. Of course, many people’s doorways were blocked with snow during the winter solstice, but that was no trouble for a shaman. He could just slip the mushroom down the chimney - yes, for real.
But the thing about Amanita muscaria mushrooms is that, regardless of how red and delicious they may look, they’re extremely poisonous. So, to make them fit for consumption, they first had to be dried out. The shamans in Siberia would dry them out by laying them on the branches of pine trees.
Not only do we have an explanation for the origins of Santa Claus bounding down the chimney (as he does in the classic “A Visit from St. Nicholas” poem by Clement Clarke Moore) and leaving gifts in his wake. But we also have an explanation for the beginning of Christmas tree ornaments: little red poisonous mushrooms drying out in the sun on pine tree branches. Not to mention Santa Claus’s lustrous red and snowy white color scheme, which is eerily similar to a mushroom we won’t mention.
But wait! There’s more.
Psychedelic Presents Under The Tree
One of the best parts of Christmas (at least for little kids) is the presents under the tree. But why do we put them under the tree? In fact, why do we use a pine tree at all?
Some historians suggest that the reason is that Amanita muscaria mushrooms grow at the base of pine trees. The presents under your tree, therefore, represent psychedelic mushrooms that, if you were a Siberian villager hundreds of years ago, your shaman would have tossed down your chimney with care as a gift to mark the winter solstice.
Wrapping It All Up
Here’s what we’ve learned: Santa Claus has a pretty radical past. Do we know for sure that many of our dearly held Christmas traditions lie in a distant Siberian past, with shamans, reindeer urine, and a funny little red and white psychedelic mushroom? No. But it sure explains a lot, don’t you think?
So, when you’re microdosing this Christmas, be sure to lift your glass or your chocolate bar to jolly old Saint Nick.
(And now you know why he’s so jolly.)