Once a year, a man living an isolated life in the northern tip of the world comes out of hiding, calling on a majestic pack of four-legged animals that aid his mission: to spread the joy of Christmas throughout the entire world. Santa’s annual voyage from the North Pole is one of the few remaining myths of western civilization. For many, it seems a rite of passage that at a certain age, the myth’s magic and wondrous imaginings became too far-fetched to be perpetuated any longer, and — perhaps over fear that their children might find out elsewhere — parents relay the cold reality that the story is indeed a farce.
But what are the actual, historical origins of the myth? For decades, numerous articles and books have appeared that point towards Santa’s voyage as a metaphorical retelling of a psychedelic trip; from evidence of reindeer foraging mushrooms to more extensive interpretations of Santa as a shaman embarking on a sacred mushroom journey.
From Pop culture to Shamanic Tradition
Carl Ruck, professor of classical studies at Boston University, is enthusiastic about the resurgent interest in the role of psychedelics in the origins of Christmas folklore.
“I’ve been intrigued that people have known about this for quite some time,” Ruck said in an interview with Reset.
The 19th Century poet Clement Clark Moore is credited as the primary influence behind the modern image of Santa Claus. Moore revived the character in his 1822 poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” combining elements of medieval European Christianity from the Eastern Orthodox Church with Dutch folklore. Moore also, perhaps unwittingly, left clues referencing ancient Nordic culture and shamanic tradition in what became an iconic symbol of modern Christmas: the eight flying reindeer.
“Whoever heard of reindeer flying, except as shamanic vehicles?” Ruck said. “We know about the reindeers’ fondness for [Amanita muscaria] mushrooms.”
Ruck continued, referring to the red-colored nose on Santa’s ninth reindeer, “the song ‘Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer’ in the 1940s added a clear fungal reference.” Ruck posits that the distinctive red coloration of the Amanita muscaria (sometimes called ‘fly agaric’) mushroom and Rudolph’s bright nose — coupled with Moore’s eight flying reindeer — hints at a complex historical thread that may have survived elements of ancient cultures immersed in mystical experience.
In parallel with the influence of St. Nicholas and Dutch folklore in Moore’s poem, in Northern Europe the Celtic and Norse mythology surrounding the origins of Christmas also includes references to sacred mushroom ceremony.
“The Christmas tree is a motif that you find in Nordic mythology of Christmas,” Ruck said. “It has to do with the solstice; gifts under the tree might well be a reference to the way the mushroom grows around the sacred tree.”
While Moore’s poem includes a line about Santa stuffing stockings with gifts, there is no mention of a Christmas tree.
Shamanic history often contains archetypal representations of animals, combining certain elements of nature and mystical phenomena; ‘Donner’ and ‘Blitzen’ are “clearly associations with thunder and lightning names,” as Ruck explained.
The other reindeer names are almost all suggestive of movement.
“So you have the whole motif of the deer hunt in Medieval European folklore,” Ruck said. “The deer hunt is probably a hunt not only for the deer, but for the natural intoxicating mushroom in the forest.”
Ruck sees a departure in the St. Nicholas image of Santa Claus found in Moore’s poem from Nordic paganism, but the reindeers’ names maintains a connection to the sacred role they may have played. Santa’s robe, Ruck argues, is the source of the departure. In Nordic warrior culture, “[the robe is depicted as] a bearskin that’s turned inside out, and so this would connect him with the Nordic traditions of the warriors who wore bearskins and were berserkers; a fraternity of warriors who materialized on the battlefield as bears or wolves, ‘flying’ with a team of reindeer.”
When you line up all the evidence, it’s not so far fetched to think that our modern-day symbols of Christmas echo a psychedelic past.