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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!
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!)
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.”
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.”
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!”
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.