By Mary Nell Jackson, Guest Contributor
When I was researching Winter Solstice I learned that Amanita muscaria mushrooms play a meaningful role in today’s Christmas tales. In fact, these red and white mushrooms may have had a significant influence on the depiction of Santa and his reindeer. It’s possible they directly or indirectly inspired Clement C. Moore’s The Night Before Christmas.
The late ethno-mycologist James Arthur listed many connections. One of the most simple is the colorful mushrooms appearance under pine and birch trees, similar to the Christmas tree. Another is Santa’s ruddy complexion, which could be caused by eating the mushroom. Yet another is his joyous ‘ho ho ho’ as ethno-botanists describe an ecstatic laugh in people who partake of these mushrooms.
My research took me to historic Siberia where Koryak people ate these mushrooms in small doses for hallucinogenic properties. A shaman would gather and prepare the mushrooms, then transport them to a ceremony in a white sack, much like Santa’s toy bag.
To reduce toxicity a shaman would hung mushrooms from tree branches to dry. This is a lot like hanging ornaments today.
And, it’s interesting to note the Koryak people lived in yurts. When the front door was hidden by snow drifts, they entered through the chimney.
Legend has it that Santa’s reindeer ate mushrooms as they grazed near pine trees. Thus, their odd reindeer behavior becomes explainable.
On NPR’s Morning Edition, commentator Richard Harris shared the following story about touring Harvard University’s Herbarium. At tour’s end, Harris eyed a glass case containing Christmas decorations shaped like red mushrooms with white flecks — amanita muscaria. He asked curator and biology professor Donald Pfister “Why?” Pfister told Harris that each December he gathers introductory botany students and tells them about Santa and the psychedelic mushrooms.
Unconvinced? Anthropologist and professor John Rush from Sierra College in Rocklin, Calif., shares yet another tale. A few hundred years ago Arctic shamans handed out psychedelic mushrooms on the Winter Solstice. People often hung them on trees or at the fireplace to dry. Rush also points out that the traditional dress of the shamans was red suits with white spots … which factors into the Santa tale.
These are, of course, speculation. I must say it has given me pause to think about the relationship of Santa Claus and these colorful magical mushrooms.