The Influence of Hallucinogenic Mushrooms on Christmas

The story of Santa Claus is not the creation of Coca-Cola, nor Saint Nicholas or a children’s story, it exists because of a small living being with great powers: the Amanita muscaria mushroom.

December 22, 2020

Giuliana Furci

FFungi Staff

Founding Director

FFungi Volunteer

Robert Gordon Wasson, an ethnomycologist, and anthropologist John A. Rush have investigated fungi, the religious and ritualistic perspective and also their psychotropic properties. In their research, both came to the conclusion that the Amanita muscaria mushroom is closely related to the Christmas imaginary.

Hundreds of years ago, it was found that the winter solstice ceremony of the indigenous people of the North Pole, especially the Koryaks of Siberia and the Kamchadales, had similar traditions to the ones of the last century’s Christmas Eve.

In the ancestral communities of the Arctic, the winter solstice, which occurs on December 21st, was a ceremonial and festive date. Rituals were conducted that were guided by shamans who collected the Amanita muscaria mushroom, also called fly agaric, which has powerful hallucinogenic properties.

Amanita muscaria ©Giuliana Furci

©Emanuel Salzman

Amanita muscaria is striking and characteristic in appearance, with its red hat with white dots. It grows in the ground near trees such as birch and pine. The latter, for the indigenous people of the north, are trees of life, a name that related to their great height. Therefore, the place where the fly agaric mushroom grew was a place of particular value.

The toxicity of the Amanita muscaria when ingested is high, so before taking it they had to dehydrate them on the branches of the pines. A second possibility was to put them in socks and spread them over the fire, an image that closely resembles the Christmas tradition of hanging Christmas boots over chimneys.

Additionally, the reindeer were of great help in reducing the toxicity of the mushroom, since they can eat Amanita muscaria without suffering the effects of its venom. Thus, the urine of the animals was used, since they had already filtered the harmful components of the mushroom, but which still maintained its hallucinogenic effects.

After the shaman had ingested the mushrooms or drunk the urine of the reindeer, the hallucinations and reactions of the amanita began, such as feelings of joy, desire to sing, or increased muscle tone, so any physical effort was easier to perform.

Amanita muscaria ©Giuliana Furci

The legend says that, during their trips the shamans managed to see the future of the community, they could turn into animals and fly towards the North Star in search of knowledge to share with the rest of the people. At the end of their hallucinogenic experience, they would return to the group in their yurt (the type of housing typical of the inhabitants of that region at that time) and met with the important men of the town to begin with the solstice ceremony, in addition to sharing their visions with the community.

©Frederice Lagrange

Shamans’ psychotropic journeys are believed to be related to the idea that Santa Claus travels with his sleigh and reindeer through the skies to deliver gifts. The gift given by the shamans was the knowledge that the mushroom gave them, in addition to sharing portions of it among those present.

Another similarity with the Christmas imaginary is that the entrance to the yurts was a hole in the roof, because the main door was covered with snow. Thus the shaman made his appearance descending from the highest part of the house, similar to Santa Claus descending through the chimney.

©Frederice Lagrange

Clothing is another similarity, since to honor Amanita muscaria the shamans dressed in red and white clothes, and to protect themselves from the snow they used large reindeer leather boots that over time turned black.

The expansion of Santa Claus

Over time this shamanic archetype changed and it is said that with the travel of Druids this tradition spread to Great Britain. Then through cultural exchange, it was combined with Germanic and Nordic myths that related adventures such as those of Wotan (Germanic god), Odin (his Nordic counterpart) and other gods, who when traveling during the night of the winter solstice, were chased by demons in a sleigh pulled by an eight-legged horse. It was said that a trail of red and white blood fell from the sleigh and that the horses frothed white foam to the ground, where the amanita mushrooms would appear the following year.

©Miguel Carbonell and Selva painting

With time, Christianity related the Christmas tradition to the 4th century Turkish bishop, Saint Nicholas of Bari, who also inspired the character of Santa Claus, since he used to give gifts to those in need and especially to children.

“A cheerful, playful and at the same time realistic Santa Claus” was the commission that Coca-Cola gave the illustrator Haddon Sundblom, in 1931. Hence the current image of Santa Claus.

Thus, the power of the Amanita muscaria mushroom has marked the history of Christmas until today. The rites on the dates close to the December solstice are preserved until today, with clear modifications, but the mushrooms remain present through Christmas decorations and designs that connect us with hundreds of years of tradition.