by Dana Larsen
December 18, 2003
Although most people see Christmas as a Christian holiday, many of
the symbols and icons we associate with Christmas celebrations are
actually derived from the shamanistic traditions of the tribal
peoples of pre-Christian Northern Europe.
The sacred mushroom of these people was the red and white amanita
mushroom, also known as "fly agaric."
These mushrooms are now commonly seen in
books of fairy tales, and are usually associated with magic and
fairies. This is because they contain potent hallucinogenic
compounds, and were used by ancient peoples for insight and
Most of the major elements of the modern Christmas celebration,
the giving of gifts,
...are originally based upon the
traditions surrounding the harvest and consumption of these most
The world tree
These ancient peoples, including
the Lapps of modern-day Finland,
Konyak tribes of the central
Russian steppes, believed in the idea of a World Tree.
The World Tree was seen as a kind of
cosmic axis, onto which the planes of the universe are fixed. The
roots of the World Tree stretch down into the underworld, its trunk
is the "middle earth" of everyday existence, and its branches reach
upwards into the heavenly realm.
The North Star was also considered sacred, since all other stars in
the sky revolved around its fixed point. They associated this "Pole
Star" with the World Tree and the central axis of the universe.
The top of the World Tree touched the
North Star, and the spirit of the shaman would climb the
metaphorical tree, thereby passing into the realm of the gods. This
is the true meaning of the star on top of the modern Christmas tree,
and also the reason that the super-shaman Santa makes his
home at the North Pole.
The amanita muscaria mushrooms grow only under certain types of
trees, mostly firs and evergreens.
The mushroom caps are the fruit of the
larger mycelium beneath the soil which exists in a symbiotic
relationship with the roots of the tree. To ancient people, these
mushrooms were literally "the fruit of the tree."
Ancient peoples were amazed at how these magical mushrooms sprang
from the earth without any visible seed. They considered this
"virgin birth" to have been the result of the morning dew, which was
seen as the semen of the deity.
The silver tinsel we drape onto our
modern Christmas tree represents this divine fluid.
The active ingredients of the amanita mushrooms are not metabolized
by the body, and so they remain active in the urine.
In fact, it is safer to drink the urine
of one who has consumed the mushrooms than to eat the mushrooms
directly, as many of the toxic compounds are processed and
eliminated on the first pass through the body.
It was common practice among ancient people to recycle the potent
effects of the mushroom by drinking each other's urine. The
amanita's ingredients can remain potent even after six passes
through the human body.
Some scholars argue that this is the
origin of the phrase "to get pissed," as this urine-drinking
activity preceded alcohol by thousands of years.
Reindeer were the sacred animals of these semi-nomadic people, as
the reindeer provided food, shelter, clothing and other necessities.
Reindeer are also fond of eating the amanita mushrooms; they will
seek them out, then prance about while under their influence.
Often the urine of tripped-out reindeer
would be consumed for its psychedelic effects.
This effect goes the other way too, as reindeer also enjoy the urine
of a human, especially one who has consumed the mushrooms. In fact,
reindeer will seek out human urine to drink, and some tribesmen
carry sealskin containers of their own collected piss, which they
use to attract stray reindeer back into the herd.
The effects of the amanita mushroom usually include sensations of
size distortion and flying.
The feeling of flying could account for
the legends of flying reindeer, and legends of shamanic journeys
included stories of winged reindeer, transporting their riders up to
the highest branches of the World Tree.
Although the modern image of Santa Claus was created at least in
part by the advertising department
of Coca-Cola, in truth his
appearance, clothing, mannerisms and companions all mark him as the
reincarnation of these ancient mushroom-gathering shamans.
One of the side effects of eating amanita mushrooms is that the skin
and facial features take on a flushed, ruddy glow.
This is why Santa is always shown with
glowing red cheeks and nose. Even Santa's jolly "Ho, ho, ho!" is the
euphoric laugh of one who has indulged in the magic fungus.
Santa also dresses like a mushroom gatherer. When it was time to go
out and harvest the magical mushrooms, the ancient shamans would
dress much like Santa, wearing red and white fur-trimmed coats and
long black boots.
These peoples lived in dwellings made of birch and reindeer hide,
Somewhat similar to a teepee, the yurt's
central smoke-hole is sometimes used as an entrance when the snow is
deep, or by a shaman for ceremonial purposes. After gathering the
mushrooms from under the sacred trees where they appeared, the
shamans would fill their sacks and return home.
Climbing down the chimney-entrances,
they would share out the mushroom's gifts with those within.
The amanita mushroom needs to be dried before being consumed; the
drying process reduces the mushroom's toxicity while increasing its
potency. The shaman would guide the group in stringing the mushrooms
and hanging them around the hearth-fire to dry.
This tradition is echoed in the modern
stringing of popcorn and other items.
The psychedelic journeys taken under the influence of the amanita
were also symbolized by a stick reaching up through the smoke-hole
in the top of the yurt. The smoke-hole was the portal where the
spirit of the shaman exited the physical plane.
Santa's famous magical journey, where his sleigh takes him
around the whole planet in a single night, is developed from the
"heavenly chariot," used by the gods from whom Santa and other
shamanic figures are descended.
The chariot of Odin, Thor
and even the Egyptian god Osiris is now known as
the Big Dipper, which circles
around the North Star in a 24-hour period.
In different versions of the ancient story, the chariot was pulled
by reindeer or horses. As the animals grow exhausted, their mingled
spit and blood falls to the ground, forming the amanita mushrooms.
and Old Nick
Saint Nicholas is a legendary figure who supposedly lived
during the fourth Century.
His cult spread quickly and Nicholas
became the patron saint of many varied groups, including judges,
pawnbrokers, criminals, merchants, sailors, bakers, travelers, the
poor, and children.
Most religious historians agree that St Nicholas did not actually
exist as a real person, and was instead a Christianized version of
earlier Pagan gods. Nicholas' legends were mainly created out of
stories about the Teutonic god called Hold Nickar, known as
Poseidon to the Greeks.
This powerful sea god was known to
gallop through the sky during the winter solstice, granting boons to
his worshippers below.
the Catholic Church created
the character of St Nicholas, they took his name from "Nickar"
and gave him Poseidon's title of "the Sailor."
There are thousands of churches named in
St Nicholas' honor, most of which were converted from temples to
Poseidon and Hold Nickar. (As the ancient pagan deities were
demonized by the Christian church, Hold Nickar's name also became
associated with Satan, known as "Old Nick!")
Local traditions were incorporated into the new Christian holidays
to make them more acceptable to the new converts. To these early
Christians, Saint Nicholas became a sort of "super-shaman" who was
overlaid upon their own shamanic cultural practices.
Many images of Saint Nicholas from these
early times show him wearing red and white, or standing in front of
a red background with white spots, the design of the amanita
St Nicholas also adopted some of the qualities of the legendary "Grandmother
Befana" from Italy, who filled children's stockings with
Her shrine at Bari, Italy, became a
shrine to St Nicholas.
Some psychologists have discussed the "cognitive dissonance" which
occurs when children are encouraged to believe in the literal
existence of Santa Claus, only to have their parents' lie revealed
when they are older.
By so deceiving our children we rob them
of a richer heritage, for the actual origin of these ancient rituals
is rooted deep in our history and our collective unconscious.
By better understanding the truths
within these popular celebrations, we can better understand the
modern world, and our place in it.
Many people in the modern world have rejected Christmas as being too
commercial, claiming that this ritual of giving is actually a
celebration of materialism and greed.
Yet the true spirit of this winter
festival lies not in the exchange of plastic toys, but in
celebrating a gift from the earth: the fruiting top of a magical
mushroom, and the revelatory experiences it can provide.
Instead of perpetuating outdated and confusing holiday myths, it
might be more fulfilling to return to the original source of these