psychedelic mushrooms and the origins of santa claus

THE IMAGE OF SANTA CLAUS in a sleigh pulled by flying rein­deer that al­lows him to visit bil­lions of house­holds around the globe in a single night is usu­ally taken for granted. It is so much a part of “tra­di­tional” western pop cul­ture that San­ta’s origins—especially the mag­ical parts—are rarely con­sid­ered by most people.

The modern ver­sion of the holly, jolly man of gen­erous girth, rosy cheeks, and twin­kling eyes may be as apple as Amer­ican pie! That ap­pear­ance is al­most ex­clu­sively the re­sult of the art­work of two men to pro­mote that most Amer­ican of prod­ucts, Coca-Cola.

The modern ap­pear­ance of Santa Claus was de­signed to ad­ver­tise Coca-Cola in the ’30s.

Santa was de­signed and drawn by Fred Mizen in 1930 but wasn’t fully re­al­ized until painted by Haddon Sund­blom a year later. The Mizen-Sundblom Santa has since be­come a public do­main figure, the common “prop­erty” of bil­lions of people around the world.

But where did the red and white cos­tume come from? Where did they find flying rein­deer? How did the stealthy giving of gifts orig­i­nate? And there’s the en­tering of peo­ple’s homes via the chimney, an act we nor­mally as­so­ciate with thieves and mon­sters. Heck, even vam­pires are po­lite enough to have to wait until they have been in­vited to enter a vic­tim’s domicile!

 

Psychedelic Mushrooms and Santa Claus: illustration of an elf-like Santa by Arthur Rackham from 1931

Psychedelic Mushrooms and Santa Claus: first commercial illustration of modern Santa by Haddon SundBlom from 1930.

Top: This 1931 il­lus­tra­tion by Arthur Rackham de­picts a red-clad Santa, a bundle of gifts on his back, de­parting via the chimney. Ex­cept for his size and elvish ap­pear­ance, he is clearly the fore­runner of modern Santa. Bottom: The first “modern” in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Santa Claus seen by the public was this 1931 painting by Haddon Sund­blom. It was based on a 1930 drawing by Fred Mizen, who had done it the year be­fore for Coca-Cola’s hol­iday print ads.

Psychedelic experiences without Santa Claus

I paid little at­ten­tion to these ques­tions through the years, al­though I al­ways en­joyed the char­acter each De­cember, es­pe­cially in movies. Whether he is por­trayed by Ed­mund Gwenn as a pa­thetic old man or Austin Pendleton as a creepy party guest or Tim Allen as a re­luc­tant rein­car­na­tion, I usu­ally enjoy the ride.

But while re­searching a dif­ferent topic en­tirely, I found my­self looking at an­tique post­cards or sim­ilar ar­ti­facts which in­cluded the white-spotted red caps of the Amanita mus­caria mush­room, also known among trip­pers are the magic mush­room. This led me to sev­eral ar­ti­cles ex­ploring the psy­che­delic ori­gins of the pre-Coca-Cola Santa Claus.

But de­spite my having taken count­less trips over the past six decades, I cannot re­call a single one being a Christ­masy psy­che­delic ex­pe­ri­ence. So, having little ex­per­tise in this matter, I have simply in­cluded texts from sev­eral (hope­fully) more learned web­sites below.

Keep in mind that this is not an in-depth look at the real or per­ceived psy­che­delic back­ground of Santa Claus or Christmas. The text is mostly here to pro­vide a set­ting for the mar­velous il­lus­tra­tions. (And you can click on any il­lus­tra­tion to en­large it!)

 

Psychedelic Mushrooms and Santa Claus: 19th century Christmas postcard with magic mushroom and elf.

Psychedelic Mushrooms and Santa Claus: 19th century Christmas postcard with magic mushroom and elves.

Psychedelic Mushrooms and Santa Claus: 19th century Christmas postcard with magic mushroom and elf.

Elf-like creatures—almost al­ways males with long, white beards and ap­parent fore­run­ners of the modern Santa Claus—were a reg­ular fea­ture of 19th-century Christmas cards such as the ones above.

Psychedelic story of Christmas

John Rush, au­thor of Mush­rooms In Chris­tian Art and pro­fessor of an­thro­pology at Sierra Col­lege in Rocklin, Cal­i­fornia, has re­searched the sub­ject heavily: “Santa is a modern coun­ter­part of a shaman, who con­sumed mind-altering plants and fungi to com­mune with the spirit world. Up until a few hun­dred years ago, these prac­ticing shamans or priests con­nected to the older tra­di­tions would col­lect Amanita mus­caria, dry them, and then give them as gifts on the winter solstice.”

The fol­lowing para­graphs are from “Could Magic Mush­rooms Ex­plain the Story of Santa Claus?” on the Uni­versal Life Church Monastery web­site (“We are all chil­dren of the same uni­verse”). The text has been slightly edited for rel­e­vance and styl­istic continuity:

“The story of Santa flying around Earth on Christmas Eve with his rein­deer and sleigh is a Christmas staple pop­ular enough to rival that of Jesus’ birth. But where did the idea of flying rein­deer and a stealthy gift-giver squeezing down chim­neys come from? One in­ter­esting theory claims the an­swer re­volves around Amanita mus­caria: magic mushrooms.

The iconog­raphy of red and white mush­rooms is a common Christ­mas­time theme. Count­less baubles, or­na­ments, paint­ings, and other Christmas dec­o­ra­tions can easily be found with at least a nod to­ward the magic mush­room. Were these pop­ular Christmas dec­o­ra­tions be­cause of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Santa Claus and hal­lu­cino­genic mushrooms? 

There may never be con­sensus on the con­nec­tion be­tween Amanita mus­caria and the story of Santa Claus, but it could cer­tainly ex­plain some of the more fan­tas­tical el­e­ments of San­ta’s lore.”

 

Psychedelic Mushrooms and Santa Claus: 19th century Christmas postcard with magic mushroom, children, and pigs.

Psychedelic Mushrooms and Santa Claus: 19th century Christmas postcard with magic mushroom and child.

Psychedelic Mushrooms and Santa Claus: 19th century Christmas postcard with magic mushroom and elves.

Psychedelic Mushrooms and Santa Claus: 19th century Christmas postcard with magic mushroom and children.

Pigs also ap­peared in 19th-century Christmas cards such as the ones above.

Psychedelic stories of Christmas

The fol­lowing para­graphs are from “Santa and the ‘Shrooms: The real story be­hind the “de­sign” of Christmas” by Holly McWhorter for the In Habitat web­site. The text has been slightly edited for rel­e­vance and styl­istic continuity:

“The roots of Santa’s style, and his bag of goodies, sleigh, rein­deer, bizarre mid­night flight, [and] dis­tinc­tive chimney-based means of entry into the home, seem to lead all the way back to the an­ces­tral tra­di­tions of a number of in­dige­nous arctic circle dwellers—the Kam­chadales and the Ko­ryaks of Siberia, specifically.

On the night of the winter sol­stice, a shaman would gather sev­eral hal­lu­cino­genic mush­rooms called Amanita mus­caria and [use] them to launch him­self into a spir­i­tual journey to the tree of life (a large pine), which lived by the North Star and held the an­swer to all the village’s prob­lems from the pre­vious year.

These mush­rooms are se­ri­ously toxic, but they be­come less lethal when dried out. Con­ve­niently, they grow most com­monly under pine trees, so the shaman would often hang them on lower branches of the pine they were growing under to dry out be­fore taking them back to the vil­lage. As an al­ter­na­tive, he would put them in a sock and hang them over his fire to dry.

An­other way to re­move the fatal toxins from the mush­rooms was to feed them to rein­deer, who would only get high from them, and then pee, with their di­ges­tive sys­tems fil­tering out most of the toxins, making their urine safe for hu­mans to drink and get a safer high that way.

Any rein­deer who’d had a tasty mush­room snack would often jumped so high they looked like they were flying!

Amanita mus­caria also stim­u­lates the mus­cular system so strongly that those who eat them take on tem­porarily su­per­human strength. So any rein­deer who’d had a tasty mush­room snack would be­come lit­er­ally high and mighty, prancing around and often jumping so high they looked like they were flying.

The legend had it that the shaman and the rein­deer would fly to the north star (which sits di­rectly over the north pole) to re­trieve the gifts of knowl­edge, which they would then dis­tribute to the rest of the village.

It seems that these tra­di­tions were car­ried down into Great Britain by way of the an­cient druids, whose spir­i­tual prac­tices had taken on el­e­ments that had orig­i­nated much far­ther north. These sto­ries got mixed with cer­tain Ger­manic and Nordic myths in­volving Wotan or Odin going on a mid­night winter sol­stice ride, chased by devils, on an eight-legged horse.

The ex­er­tion of the chase would make flecks of red and white blood and foam fall from the horse’s mouth to the ground, where the next year Amanita mush­rooms would ap­pear. Ap­par­ently, over time, this Eu­ro­pean story of a horse with eight legs, united with the an­cient Arctic circle story of rein­deer prancing and flying around on the same night, melted to­gether into eight prancing, flying reindeer.”

 

Psychedelic Mushrooms and Santa Claus: 19th century Christmas postcard with magic mushroom, children, and pigs.

Psychedelic Mushrooms and Santa Claus: 19th century Christmas postcard with magic mushroom.

Psychedelic Mushrooms and Santa Claus: 19th century Christmas postcard with magic mushroom, elves, and children.

Of course, adorable chil­dren also ap­peared in 19th-century Christmas cards such as the ones above.

Psychedelic designs of Christmas

As I said, I am not the least bit knowl­edge­able in this field of San­taology. I cannot stand be­hind a single state­ment made by the au­thors of the ar­ti­cles quoted above. But as an ex­pe­ri­enced “trav­eler,” these ar­ti­cles and these il­lus­tra­tions cer­tainly add an old-timey mag­ical luster to what many people con­sider an overly processed, san­i­tized, and com­mer­cial­ized holiday.

As someone fa­mous once said, “Ho, ho, ho!”

 

Psychedelic Mushrooms and Santa Claus: 19th century Christmas postcard with magic mushroom and child.

FEATURED IMAGE: I chose this post­card be­cause it re­minded me of some of the car­toons that the Max Fleis­cher Studio used to make back in their heyday of the 1920s-1930s. I grew up watching them on tele­vi­sion on Sat­urday mornings.

 

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