I love both Christmas and drugs so it’s weird that this year, 2022, is the first time I’ve heard that Santa Claus is based on shamans passing out magic mushrooms to random people in the winter. If you’re confused right now, good! That means I managed to hear about this before you did, so that makes me feel slightly less out-of-the-loop. But when I recently stumbled upon an article about “Santa and the Magic Mushroom” I googled around a bit and it turns out people have been talking about this every Christmas since before anyone had heard of COVID-19. I know, it’s been that long, at least! For instance, Vice posted a story in 2014 called “Santa Claus Was a Shroom-Tripping Shaman
Before I describe Vice’s evidence for this, let me spoil the ending for you: it’s bullshit. Wow, this story has THREE things I love: Christmas, drugs, and being a giant buzzkill. Fuck yeah!
Okay, so here’s the “evidence” for the connection between Siberian shamans and Santa Claus, and it’s the kind of evidence that a lawyer might call “circumstantial” but I’m just going to call “pathetic:”
1.) Siberian shamans consumed the Amanita muscaria for both healing and spiritual purposes. This is the quintessential “magic mushroom,” with a bright red (or orange) cap with white spots on it. This is true.
2.) Siberian reindeer also consumed the mushroom. Drinking their milk or piss would result in people getting the hallucinogenic properties without most of the “making you barf everywhere” properties. This is also true.
That’s it, that’s the evidence. From here on out we are in the “citation needed” zone:
3.) The Shamans dressed up like the mushrooms in red and white and then went door to door by sleigh handing them out to people, but with all the snow they couldn’t get in the door so they had to drop down the chimney.
No one has any evidence any of this is true. No one has any evidence to suggest shamans got around via sleigh, that they randomly gave away their sacred herbs, or that they tumbled down chimneys because indigenous people didn’t know how to clear a driveway. There’s certainly no evidence they dressed up LIKE A MUSHROOM. In fact, if that were the case then we would see a very clear throughline in which Santa always wears red and white, which anyone who has ever had one of those “1 weird fact-a-day” calendars knows. Santa and his relatives like Father Christmas spent a long time without any particular color scheme (when I was a kid in the 80s I was always partial to Father Christmases in deep blue velvet), and the fact that we think of Santa as being dressed in red and white is mostly thanks to Coca Cola for making Santa their mascot in 1931 and giving him THEIR BRAND’S colors. That’s right hippies, it wasn’t drugged up shamans, it was CAPITALISM.
4.) We hang stockings up by the chimney because that’s how the shamans dried out the mushrooms to prepare them for ingestion. Again, no evidence for it: yes mushrooms are better dried out, but it has nothing to do with your socks. Historians by and large accept that stockings date back to a myth of a wealthy St. Nick feeling bad for a guy who couldn’t afford his daughters’ dowries and tossing coins through the window, which landed in one girls’ socks that were drying by the fire.
5.) We put presents under the tree because that’s where mushrooms grow. Yes, seriously, that’s one of the claims. Again, if it were true then we could trace this tradition all the way back to contact with Arctic shamans but we can’t: there’s a reason why, as Thomas Hatsid points out over at ProjectCBD, A Visit From Saint Nicholas doesn’t even mention a tree but does mention stockings: because before CAPITALISM got out of control, Santa would put a few treats and shiny objects in the stockings and call it a night. Now he’s bringing us Playstations, which don’t fit in socks or “ON” the tree, as in the song “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” which was written in 1943 when presents were small enough to go there. Now they don’t, so they go at the bottom of the tree.
And that’s it, that’s all the “evidence” for this connection.
Look, holidays, traditions, and entire religions don’t just spring into existence pure and unique. I mean, just look at the clusterfuck that was the Greeks, Romans, and other polytheistic cultures: Zeus is kinda like the Roman Jupiter, both of whom absorbed the idea of Sabazios from the Phrygians, and they all have similar powers to Indra from the Hindus…there’s all this cross-pollination, as cultures take over other cultures and get all blended in so that, for instance, people will accept whatever god you want them to believe in so long as they get to keep the fun festival where we eat good food on the first full moon after the 39th day of Fucktober or whatever.
So is it out of the question that our favorite gift-giving mythological being was influenced in some way by shamans in Siberia? I mean…no, but it’s pretty out there. With a lot of traditions like this, the influences come from cultures that were at one point popular and even dominant in the places where the myth persists today. Like, a lot of our (American/European) Christmas and Easter traditions come from pagan and then Jewish traditions, because that’s what people in Europe were into before Christianity moved in and had to make some sacrifices to get people on board.
Is it possible that ancient nomadic Siberian shamans influenced our modern idea of Santa? Suuuure, maybe when the Russians pushed into Siberia they would meld their own traditions with the dominant indigenous culture to pave the way to better relations, and so if that happened we could look at the modern Russian Christmas traditions to see if they have all these markers. Russia’s version of St. Nick/Father Christmas/Santa Claus is Ded Moroz (literally, Father Frost) and he looks like this. He does not dress exclusively in red, his sled is pulled by horses, and he doesn’t even have any reindeer, though in some places he’s starting now to meld with Santa and so he’s getting redder and more reindeer-ed, because again that’s how these things go. Are you a mythological creature who has been around for a few centuries? Well pal, you better be ready to adapt.
You can probably guess why this Santa/magic mushroom connection gets clicks despite a complete lack of evidence. Drugs! Santa! The opportunity to say “I bet you don’t know that hallucinogenic reindeer piss is the reason for the season” at the company Christmas party! But the real source of a lot of this, I think, is revealed in this NPR piece from 2010 about Donald Pfister, biology professor and curator of Harvard’s Farlow Reference Library and Herbarium (and his colleague Anne Pringle):
“Add it all up and what do you get? Pringle connected the dots: “People are flying. The mushroom turns into a happy personification named Santa.”
“She said it with a laugh, but the connection between psychedelic mushrooms and the Santa story has gradually woven itself into popular culture, at least the popular culture of mycology, mushroom science.
“So every year, when Christmas draws near, Pfister gathers the students in his introductory botany class, and, no doubt with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, tells the tale of Santa and the psychedelic mushrooms.”
This was clearly a fun fluff piece that isn’t super subtle about the fact that this is just a fun yarn – it’s a modern myth about an ancient myth. But we can’t have nice, fun, eye-twinkling things like this today. As the story gets passed from outlet to outlet, the “subtle” playfulness gets dropped. What is actually a story about a biology professor goofing around with his students with a fun lecture every Christmas becomes the SECRET TRUTH OF SANTA CLAUS, which leaves it to annoying buzzkills like me to pipe up and say “well actually that’s not true.”
So…I’m sorry, but well actually it’s not true. But you know what IS true? The fact that Santa wears red and white because he is based on an ancient bloodletter, who went door to door in ancient Mesopotamia curing the sick by slicing their veins open (the red). If the patient had been good that year, he would then bandage them up again (the white). If they were naughty he would let them bleed to death, and then their remains would be loaded into a sleigh and taken to the local reindeer farm where the animals would consume them, because like pigs it is well known that reindeer will voraciously eat anything. There. That’s the true reason for the season. You can take my word for it.