I decided to do this piece because my daughter is at the age where the whole tale is crumbling, and this is never a pleasant thing for kids. It isn’t cool that we lie to our kids in this way in the name of, “Aww, but it’s Christmas… what is childhood without all the bullshit we spin around them all year with bunnies and eggs, flying reindeer and pissed off pumpkins that all have no connection to anything whatsoever, no compelling morality tale nor awakening message? You’re an awful parent if you deprive them of all that!” Well, there are many cultures that don’t spin all these larks for their kids, because children are quite capable of spinning a world of wonder around themselves without our help, in fact, they’re infinitely better at it.
I want my daughter to know what the Santa myth stands for, what “gifts” were brought, why, by whom and finally: what’s in it for her.
In our culture, we’ve always kind of wondered how the heck Santa is connected to Christmas other than the fact that he brings gifts. Most of us were lead to believe that Santa Claus is a child-friendly version of Saint Nicholas – we even call him St. Nick occasionally. Although Santa became a mutt of sorts over time, including a bit of St. Nick (from Sinterklaas, the original and current European version), the actual origin of Santa is much more interesting, way before St Nick was a glint in his mama’s eye.
It all begins with a mushroom. Yes. A mushroom. Did you expect it to begin with something man made? Then you’re not thinking far back enough. Humanity’s first interactions were with earthly things.
The name of the mushroom is Amanita muscaria, also called Fly Agaric.
Muscaria is a psychotropic, causing visions and altered states. It is also toxic, and must be handled in a particular manner so as to get the psychedelic effects without the toxic ones. You may have heard of the word “shaman”, which is a word from the Tungus-speaking people of Siberia, to connote a religious specialist.(1) The Tungusic are Russian indigenous people who live in the arctic circle (north pole) and they are reindeer herders – I shit you not. (2)
A shaman dealt with the mushrooms, as both a safety practice and as part of the spirituality of the people. In fact, often the shaman would eat the mushrooms and then the people would drink the shaman’s urine – this way, the shaman acted as a filter, because the psychedelic effects remain intact but the toxicity is eradicated.(3)
Another way to decrease toxicity is to dry the mushrooms completely. The mushrooms would be harvested in late Autumn and strung up around the hearth-fire to dry in preparation for the winter solstice. (4)
The home of those in the cold north, such as Siberia, was, and is, often a “yurt”, which is similar to a tee-pee.
In some shamanic rituals, such as the initiation of shamans in Buryatia, a tree will actually be erected inside the (yurt) … passing through the smoke hole (in the roof)… in some … the shaman literally climbs the tree; in others … the shaman drums at the base and only ascends with his spiritual being. As the shaman ascends the tree in his ecstatic state, he describes his journey to the upper world. Also, even in the absence of an actual turge tree, the shaman will still travel to other worlds after exiting through the smoke hole, often after his spirit has metamorphosed into a bird.
Travel to the upper world requires the ability to fly, and shamans often change themselves into birds in order to make the journey. They may also ride upon a flying deer or horse. (5)
The shaman would collect the mushrooms in a bag and deliver them to families, who would then often hang them in socks around the fireplace to dry – the mushrooms would be ready to share their revelatory gifts in the morning of the solstice.
Amanita Muscaria grows only beneath a Christmas tree (coniferous/pine tree) in a symbiotic, non-parasitic relationship with the roots of the tree. (6) It used to be thought to be the fruit of the tree.
Finding these vivid red and white gifts beneath the Christmas tree was a treat indeed!
Especially for reindeer, who absolutely loved them. After eating some, they would prance around and some have said that is where the idea they could fly came from. There is more evidence however that the whole flying thing comes from a blend of two facts, one is that under the influence of Muscaria there are several common visions: things appearing much bigger or smaller than they really are; faeries and gnomes and other beings; and flying – either flying one’s self or seeing other things flying. This is how many would see the shaman fly off on his reindeer sleigh after his special visit. Muscaria’s other name, Fly Agaric is said to be called that because it is used as pesticide for flies, but it is useless at this apparently, and the moniker refers to the visions. (7)
Here are some tripped out reindeer courtesy of BBC’s Weird Animals:
Altogether, that is a very tight connection to our Christmas, and that is either a wild coincidence or is what actually makes the whole Christmas Santa story intelligible. Without this history, the tale stands for nothing, goes nowhere and is inexplicable mish mash.
There are those who don’t like this connection, and the best argument against it we currently have is oft repeated from the wiki page, and here it is:
Historian Ronald Hutton has since disputed the connection; he noted reindeer spirits did not appear in Siberian mythology, shamans did not travel by sleigh, nor did they wear red and white, or climb out of smoke holes in yurt roofs. Finally, American awareness of Siberian shamanism postdated the appearance of much of the folklore around Santa.(8)
I have researched all those claims and what I found was:
- Reindeer were very important to the Siberians, they even put antlers on their headdresses to symbolise the protector spirit of the reindeer. (9)
- Shamans did travel by sleigh, in fact many people did… and still do.
- Shamans did wear red and white, but not exclusively.
- Shamans did climb in and out of yurt holes. A “hole” was special in their religion, seeing it as an entry point to another dimension. See quote above for more info on the yurt hole regarding trees.
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 (utilised 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.
Every point he makes to dispel the Muscaria-Santa-Christmas connection is false… but it would be a logical fallacy on my behalf to say that means it is necessarily true. However, you’ve seen some of the history now… what do you think?
The dress of Santa is his most distinguishing feature (when not on a reindeer sleigh with a sack full of presents) that seems to be where we have refined him over time. Some Siberian shamans do have the red and white of the Muscaria, such as the shaman with the mushrooms in this picture:
We need to slip over to the west a little bit, just as our myths did, to get to the next phase of the evolution of Santa – to the God Odin in Scandinavia. It seems he took a little ‘shroom himself:
Odin’s (8 legged) steed was capable of bearing him through the air and to and from the land of the dead. (10)
Santa Claus, a jolly old fat man with a long white beard who is said to distribute presents to good children on Christmas Eve, is largely based on Odin, merged with the Christian legend of Saint Nicholas of Myra. Christmas itself and most of its traditions in Germanic countries derive from the pagan winter solstice holiday Yule…
… children would place their boots, filled with carrots, straw, or sugar, near the chimney for Odin’s flying horse, Sleipnir, to eat. Odin would then reward those children for their kindness by replacing Sleipnir’s food with gifts or candy. This practice, she claims, survived in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands after the adoption of Christianity and became associated with Saint Nicholas as a result of the process of Christianization and can be still seen in the modern practice of the hanging of stockings at the chimney in some homes. (11)
And if you still doubt, here is a picture of Odin:
I noticed that Santa and garden gnomes look identical and after a quick google I found that in Sweden the word for both is the same – tomte. With the gnome as a strong visual during a Muscaria experience, I find that interesting but I can’t really consolidate it.
And of course, we have faeries, often seen in the visuals, and often found in children’s literature hanging about Muscaria.
The evolution to the Santa we know from the Odin point on is generally known (or easy to find). So I’d like to step back a little instead, back into the relevance of the original reasons for the mushrooms that started all this. For openers, a controversial painting of Adam and Eve called Fresco at Abbaye de Plaincourault, which resides in Mérigny, France. It was used as evidence that the forbidden fruit was the fruit of the Christmas tree:
There are many examples of mushrooms in historical religious iconography. (12) Soma (“body”, or “soul”; Hindu equivalent of Eucharist) is a ritual plant eaten/drunk to become “one with God”; it has evidence to suggest it is Muscaria although scholarly debate continues… but it is certainly a psychosomatic substance. Apparently the only religion that can’t be traced to a psychedelic root is Buddhism. The works of John Allegro are interesting food for thought.
It makes sense that most religions were founded on psychedelic experiences because our culture is usually very similar to other cultures when we trace back to our own roots – and cultures that have not strayed too far from humanity’s roots still use entheogenic plants. Entheogens “generate the God within” (en = in, within; theo = God, divine; gen = create, generate). Examples are Amazonian tribes with ayahuasca and native Americans with peyote.
These ideas freak most westerners out, even the open minded ones because we can’t imagine a time when such substances were so commonly accepted. Perhaps a reminder that not so long ago cocaine was in Coca Cola and heroin was given to babies to help them sleep is in order. Cocaine was in common usage as was opium until the last century. Alcohol has been illegal at various times. Marijuana is currently under review in the United States and we could safely bet that it will eventually become legal again. That’s the way of things… they change. That we once used psychedelic plants in religious ritual and for general awakening purposes is not a big deal, nor is it a stretch of the imagination.
What bites is that powerful others have control over these changes, not us – after all, these things are plants, and we have basic human rights to all the plants our planet comes furnished with – risks included. Humans have always worked it out as long as force (for or against) is not involved. As soon as force (law) is involved, suddenly it is like a fat person on a diet: we lust for, lie for, cheat for and overindulge on that which is forbidden.
Those who have had an entheogen describe it as a religious or spiritual experience, almost universally. Particularly those that contain the DMT molecule, although not necessarily (Muscaria does not contain DMT). DMT is a substance found naturally in the human body, and no other purpose has been considered for it except “extra sensory” incidents, such as near death experiences (perhaps naturally increased to help the transition to the Other Side) and spontaneous, inexplicable mystical experiences. Inducing such experiences seems to be encouraged by nature (or the Creator, whichever you prefer), considering just how many plants contain DMT (thousands)! (13)
Only people who have not experienced an entheogen deny the implications or the reality of the experience. They are busy in their studies writing essays against the testimonies and rejecting them as hallucinations… without any experience to do so. Like near-death experiences, the reports are often that the experience feels more real than life, like it is waking up, and life is the dream.
In a 2009 interview with Examiner.com, Dr Rick Strassman described the effects on participants in a study of volunteers injected with DMT:
“Subjectively, the most interesting results were that high doses of DMT seemed to allow the consciousness of our volunteers to enter into non-corporeal, free-standing, independent realms of existence inhabited by beings of light who oftentimes were expecting the volunteers, and with whom the volunteers interacted.” (14)
It is also released when we go to sleep. This means we break the law every night because DMT is schedule-1 under the Controlled Substances Act. The powers that be certainly wouldn’t want us accessing that kind of mind opening experience, now would they?
Entheogens are said to “lift the veil”. There are many dimensions to life and the universe, and quantum mechanics seems to be smacking up against that very issue. It seems a human body is given particular sensory limitations so as to function on this plane, so ordinarily only extenuating circumstances would allow for most of us to see, hear or sense anything beyond what anyone else can. There is a ceiling, a limit, and science is now suggesting that it may simply be chemical in nature.
We are expecting a big hole or doorway, something like a black hole, and we jump through it to another place; or that aliens or other-dimensional beings will come down from the sky – much like we believe that’s where God is: “up there somewhere”. Yet, it seems to be all right here inside each of us, we are part of the universe and we are the universe – you are looking for God, yet you are God. No wonder we never find It.
The scriptures never said, “God is everything… except you.” You were included. Entheogenic experiences seem to suggest that you were much more than merely included.
Removing the limitations, lifting the veil, is perhaps nothing like hallucination and everything like “expansion of the senses”. Entheogens show you that, and unless you’ve seen it yourself, you can only speculate.
Mushrooms are the reason for the season!
Mind expansion, becoming as one with Christ, or as the scripture says in Genesis of the fruit of the “tree of knowledge”:
For God knows that as soon as you eat it, then your eyes shall be
opened, and you shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil. (15)
Christmas = Christ’s mass or eucharist (taking of the soma/body/soul)
Does this mean we give our children a magic mushroom trip for Christmas? Uh, no. Christmas has been watered down to a holiday almost solely for children (except for some eggnog and a few office parties which are thrown in for adults), but I think that is because it seems too much of a fairy tale for adults. We’re left to make it about Jesus’ birth or a family get together if we aren’t Christian. Considering that nowhere in the bible does it reference the 25th having anything to do with Jesus’ birth, then that takes a kind of “la la la I can’t hear you” ignorance that many of us simply can’t partake in, Christian or nay.
Bring meaning back to Christmas. Christmas is the birth of the christ within, KRST(16) (17) (18) (19), and in our culture this is symbolised by Jesus – you can be Christian to do this, or not. Jesus was pretty clear that he wants you to wake up, so … wake up. He gave you the map, and the internet has made it so there are almost no esoteric “secrets” left, they’re all out there now – we can ALL be mystics, with the true inner knowledge that the Vatican and others would rather we didn’t have.
Failing that, there are always psychedelics to open our minds with a WHAM and shamans only too happy to wake us all the heck up by guiding the experience safely. Hellish journeys are often reported, of course. The type of journey you experience is much like life – your thoughts determine your reality. There is something to learn in all of it.
What do Christmas psychedelic experiences have to teach us? The same as all the psychedelic experiences… in the words of those who know:
“We are all one.”
“I was the universe and everything in it.”
“Love. Nothing but shining, drop-to-my-knees-in-tears Love.”
“Light. Golden-white brilliant light.”
“I’ll never been the same, everything has changed.”
“I was swimming in an ocean of oneness with all beings in a way I cannot effectively find words for.”
“A snake curled around my legs, up my body, and stared me in the face… all my fears looked right back at me.”
“I flew through the void.”
“Peace surrounded me, I’d never felt such peace and joy… I never wanted to leave that space.”
(9) History of Cartography, Volume 2 By G. Malcolm Lewis