psychedelic mushrooms and the origins of santa claus

Es­ti­mated reading time is 6 min­utes.

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.”


Mushroom Christmas child pigs amanita 1000

Mushroom Christmas child leapfrogging amanita 1000

Mushroom Christmas children harvesting amanita 1000
Three Christmas cards from the 19th century.

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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