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Would you believe us if we told you that one special mushroom abundant in the North was the original Christmas gift? You’re about to embark on a fun, educational, and slightly strange journey about the history of Santa Claus, reindeer, gift giving, and how it all ties back to one very special mushroom.
The origin of Santa Claus connects back to Northern European Shamans. These Shamans were plentiful, wore red capes and lived in the woods. They acted like a doctor, or better yet, an herbalist of the time. These Shamans were responsible for foraging and collecting herbs and mushrooms, and moving from village to village healing people. They were plentiful and continued through generations, which explains why they (or Santa Claus) seems to live forever.
The tradition of Christmas itself comes from the Arctic Circle, somewhere near the Finnish Lapland. December 25th is a very special day. It’s around the time of the Winter Solstice, the shortest and darkest day of the year. (That’s actually on the 21st, but the new calendar is a bit different from the old Julian one). For those who have grown up in the North, you know that this is a mystical time where earthly and spiritual things can meet. For European pagans, Winter Solstice marked the end of the old year and ushered in Yule, a twilight time that was neither the old year nor the new. Even the Finnish name for Christmas (Joulu) is delivered from this Germanic name. It’s the perfect time for magic and celebration.
Now we’re getting to the fun part!
A partly poisonous mushroom that is still magical when used correctly is said to be the world’s first Christmas gift - Amanita Muscaria.
Commonly known as the fly agaric or fly amanita, this poisonous and psychoactive fungus is native throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Amanita Muscaria is noted for its hallucinogenic properties, and was used as an intoxicant and entheogen by the peoples of Siberia. Even before alcohol and synthetic drugs, people have wanted to occasionally let loose, especially during special holidays, like the Yule. In many ancient Christmas paintings, you will see the Amanita mushroom in the sky, or being held by a human (usually a kid). Later, as the story evolved, the mushroom gradually changed into just balls, but the red look-and-feel remained. Amanita mushroom is the reason why we have red balls in our Christmas trees!
Even though these mushrooms are poisonous and psychoactive, when they are dried well and you take only a little piece, the effect is supposedly similar to the uplifting effect of raw cacao, high quality coffee, or mucuna. Amanitas may have also been used to ward off winter-related conditions, such as vitamin D deficiency, depression, and lack of energy. So next time when you get the winter blues, you might consider reading a bit about Vitamin D rich mushrooms. And if you don’t feel as adventurous as the Siberians to eat Amanitas, then do like our team does and eat (sun dried) Chaga! It has significant amounts of Vitamin-D2.
The method of ingesting these mushrooms is definitely less than conventional, since it involves drinking urine. Yes, urine! As this mushroom is slightly toxic, it needs to be purified. This was often done by making the strongest person in the tribe (or one of the women) eat it, and then the rest would just bluntly drink the urine. The active ingredients of the amanita mushrooms are not metabolised by the body, and so they remain active in the urine - and it’s safer to drink this than to actually eat the mushroom yourself. Now you're tripping without the side effects. The psychoactive effect of Amanitas will remain active for about six passes through the human body. Some even argue that this is the origin of the saying “get-pissed.”
Reindeer love mushrooms too, and they especially love amanitas. Reindeer, which are native to the arctic circle, have been observed foraging and eating amanita mushrooms in winter, and sometimes exhibiting “drunk” behavior afterward. Some shamanic rituals have been said to include the urine from reindeer that had been ‘shrooming it up. Some Lapland/Siberian nomads even used their own Amanita urine to attract lost reindeers.
Siberians would often place these amanitas in stockings to dry in front of the fire. Unless the mushrooms were dried properly, they would rot faster and the psychoactive effect could be way too strong, hence the drying process over the fire. Putting the gifts under the tree is linked with the original location of Amanitas – under a living tree. Furthermore, amanita mushrooms are symbiotic with the roots of pine trees, and sometimes oak trees, which are both symbols of the original Christmas traditions, along with the spruce.
And if you're wondering why Santa comes down the chimney, we have a story for the as well! Traditionally, locals lived in dwellings made of birch and reindeer hide, called "yurts" or "goahti". Somewhat similar to a teepee, the goahti's central smoke hole was often used as an entrance when there is too much snow around the normal entrance. Shamans entering from the "chimney" also became a ceremonial habit. The Shaman (i.e Mr. Santa) would enter through the "chimney", bring the Christmas gifts (i.e. Amanitas), and leave the goahti all jolly, while the people living there would enjoy all kinds of mystical visions, due to the mushroom.
Well that was a fun journey, huh? While we won’t be celebrating with Amanitas this holiday, we will be honoring its history. Healing mushrooms and Christmas have a beautiful connection that we want to continue to live on. Yes, some hallucinogenic tripping, gift giving, and drinking urine could have been included in the past, but we’re just focusing on the present, and what a magical time of year it is.
We hope that you have a great holiday, filled with love, happiness, and lots and lots of mushrooms!
--From an e-mail from Four Sigmatic