Santa Claus was a mushroom dealer
Many of us will be sitting together with our families under a festively decorated Christmas tree this evening. We will enjoy excellent food, for which at least one family member will now sit at the dining table completely exhausted because it required half a day in the kitchen. Together we will toast the Christmas season and the end of the year. If there are children, we wrap everything up in a story and pretend that Santa Claus or the Christ Child took care of the presents under the tree.
The Christ Child is obviously a Christian version of the Christmas story. But where does the idea of Santa Claus in his sleigh pulled by reindeer in the typical Christmas colors come from? There are a variety of traditions about this and every culture seems to have its own version of it. But only one story is told over and over again and it has its origins far north. Where so much snow falls in winter that even the reindeer sink chest-deep in it. Where the sky takes on turquoise-green colors in the seemingly endless winter nights. We're talking about Lapland and the Arctic Circle with the Northern Lights. The Coca-Cola Santa Claus and the Holy Christ Child are modern twists on an ancient tradition that revolved around a natural ritual. The focus of this ritual was a sacred mushroom, and a very specific one. A mushroom that everyone has seen before: it is the fly agaric , or in Latin Aminata Muscaria .
Many people are probably saying, why should this mushroom be the focus of Christmas? Well, Aminata Muscaria is poisonous, but it also has a few very special properties (please don't eat it anyway!) Let's take a closer look:
The Sami live in Lapland, a people who are truly masters at coping with the dark and long winter nights and who don't mind even meters of snow. The Sami move through the snow with reindeer and their sleighs and live in so-called yurts, which have a fireplace in the middle around which the families gather.
Heating is done with softwood, because not much vegetation survives when it's so cold in winter. The exception are the conifers, which have specialized in staying green even in the snow. A particularly popular species for us is the pine tree, or the classic Christmas tree. But it's not just us and the Sami who benefit from the evergreenness of this tree, the fly agaric also benefits from it. He enters into a symbiosis with the Christmas tree. That's why it's not surprising that it's commonly found under Christmas trees.
Where we would cut down the tree to decorate it at home, the Sami prefer to collect the fly agaric and take it home to dry. This was done either by hanging it on nearby Christmas trees or drying it in socks over the fire. A well-known Christmas picture, with the exception that mushrooms are rarely found in our socks anymore. That's perhaps better, because when Aminata Muscaria is dried, the toxicity of the mushroom decreases somewhat, but it is still very stressful for the body.
Please don't eat the yellow snow
The Sami used a trick: They gave the mushroom to their reindeer to eat, because they obviously had less of a problem filtering out the toxins. The Sami drank the reindeer's urine collected in the snow in order to obtain only the hallucinogenic component of the mushroom. In small quantities, the fly agaric has a mind-expanding and intoxicating effect. The Sami used this hallucinogenic effect especially at Christmas to put themselves into a kind of trance.
Santa Claus was a shaman?
Yes, in principle. On the “holy evening” the Sami shamans wandered from tent to tent. This ritual was only reserved for very specific tribal leaders. They were mostly older and experienced men with long white beards. They visited the families to gather with them around the fire and give them a retrospective perspective on the past year and also predictions about the future. In honor of the fly agaric they wore red and white clothing, and to protect themselves from the snow they were equipped with large boots made of reindeer leather, which over time turned black.
The winters were often so snowy that the front door of the tents was completely covered in snow. The shamans then climbed in using a ladder through the smoke vent at the top of the tent. We also know this picture. Our current chimneys of course make this impossible, but traditionally the upper tent opening was a common way for the Sami to enter and exit in winter.
The star on the Christmas tree
Legend has it that the shamans were able to see into the future of their families during their trance journeys. The Sami describe it this way: when the shaman's spirit leaves his body, it can travel anywhere, to the sky, the oceans or the underworld. During his travels, the shaman asks spirits and deceased relatives if they have messages for the family.
Many cultures share the idea of a world tree whose roots grow into the underworld and the branches reach into heaven. For the Sami, the World Tree even extends to the North Star “Polaris” , the brightest star that can be seen from Lapland. During the ceremonies, the shaman's spirit climbed the World Tree and touched the star. He stood for truth and wisdom. This is one of the reasons why we symbolically put a star on the top of the Christmas tree today. But enough about esoteric prophecies.
What does this mean for us?
Should you dry fly agarics for Christmas? Please don't, at least it wouldn't be our recommendation. What is much more important to us is to bring you closer to the actual meaning of Christmas using this ancient Sami tradition. It certainly didn't just consist of eating mushrooms and going on psychedelic trips. It was more about bringing the Sami families closer together again year after year.
No matter which story you prefer, they all overlap in one way: Christmas is a celebration of generosity, gratitude and also family time. It was about families looking back on the year together, strengthening themselves and preparing for the new year. Overwhelmed by today's materialism and the abundance of Christmas cookies and gifts, such original ideas are lost over the decades. We have therefore written this Christmas story to bring it back to your memory.
With this in mind, we wish you a merry and merry Christmas,
your Lykaia team 🎄