A while back, I encountered a proposed origin for the Santa character as we understand him today. Basically, the idea was that shamans in Siberia would make use of a hallucinogenic mushroom as part of their practice, and there was a myth of a particular sort of over-shaman who would ride on the back of a flying reindeer and give visions to the more earth-bound folks. I think I recall hearing that he did wear red, but I didn’t hear any reason why, beyond the fact that dyed fabric tends to be valuable in pre-industrial settings. From there, it was mixed with St. Nicholas and probably other things, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Rebecca Watson encountered a considerably less-plausible (in my estimation) version of the story, and done a debunk that does cover what I’d heard as well:
Okay, so here’s the “evidence” for the connection between Siberian shamans and Santa Claus, and it’s the kind of evidence that a lawyer might call “circumstantial” but I’m just going to call “pathetic:”
1.) Siberian shamans consumed the Amanita muscaria for both healing and spiritual purposes. This is the quintessential “magic mushroom,” with a bright red (or orange) cap with white spots on it. This is true.
2.) Siberian reindeer also consumed the mushroom. Drinking their milk or piss would result in people getting the hallucinogenic properties without most of the “making you barf everywhere” properties. This is also true.
That’s it, that’s the evidence. From here on out we are in the “citation needed” zone:
3.) The Shamans dressed up like the mushrooms in red and white and then went door to door by sleigh handing them out to people, but with all the snow they couldn’t get in the door so they had to drop down the chimney.
No one has any evidence any of this is true. No one has any evidence to suggest shamans got around via sleigh, that they randomly gave away their sacred herbs, or that they tumbled down chimneys because indigenous people didn’t know how to clear a driveway. There’s certainly no evidence they dressed up LIKE A MUSHROOM. In fact, if that were the case then we would see a very clear throughline in which Santa always wears red and white, which anyone who has ever had one of those “1 weird fact-a-day” calendars knows. Santa and his relatives like Father Christmas spent a long time without any particular color scheme (when I was a kid in the 80s I was always partial to Father Christmases in deep blue velvet), and the fact that we think of Santa as being dressed in red and white is mostly thanks to Coca Cola for making Santa their mascot in 1931 and giving him THEIR BRAND’S colors. That’s right hippies, it wasn’t drugged up shamans, it was CAPITALISM.
The version I encountered had no sleighs, and no going down chimneys. If memory serves, the connection to that that I heard was that the mushrooms themselves were stored in a little sack over/near the fire, to keep them dry/preserved. I think Watson may be overstating the degree to which the modern Santa is due to Coca Cola, but they certainly played a role. I’ll also mention that I can’t find a credible source for the version that I heard, and Watson, as we’ll see, found what’s probably the origin of the myth. There are also a number of other claims that go beyond the small similarity I heard, and a better explanation for the stocking thing:
4.) We hang stockings up by the chimney because that’s how the shamans dried out the mushrooms to prepare them for ingestion. Again, no evidence for it: yes mushrooms are better dried out, but it has nothing to do with your socks. Historians by and large accept that stockings date back to a myth of a wealthy St. Nick feeling bad for a guy who couldn’t afford his daughters’ dowries and tossing coins through the window, which landed in one girls’ socks that were drying by the fire.
5.) We put presents under the tree because that’s where mushrooms grow. Yes, seriously, that’s one of the claims. Again, if it were true then we could trace this tradition all the way back to contact with Arctic shamans but we can’t: there’s a reason why, as Thomas Hatsid points out over at ProjectCBD, A Visit From Saint Nicholas doesn’t even mention a tree but does mention stockings: because before CAPITALISM got out of control, Santa would put a few treats and shiny objects in the stockings and call it a night. Now he’s bringing us Playstations, which don’t fit in socks or “ON” the tree, as in the song “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” which was written in 1943 when presents were small enough to go there. Now they don’t, so they go at the bottom of the tree.
And that’s it, that’s all the “evidence” for this connection.
Her conclusion, which is worth reading or watching, discusses how cultural interchange actually works. It’s a bit more complicated than this kind of one-to-one transfer of characteristics. I also like how she goes through the chain of analysis by examining midwinter/Christmas traditions in those cultures that actually interacted with the shamanic groups in question. The TL:DR is that getting closer to Siberia sees the Santa-like characters and traditions getting less like the just-so story of shamans, chimneys, and gifts. And speaking of just-so stories:
But the real source of a lot of this, I think, is revealed in this NPR piece from 2010 about Donald Pfister, biology professor and curator of Harvard’s Farlow Reference Library and Herbarium (and his colleague Anne Pringle):
“Add it all up and what do you get? Pringle connected the dots: “People are flying. The mushroom turns into a happy personification named Santa.”
“She said it with a laugh, but the connection between psychedelic mushrooms and the Santa story has gradually woven itself into popular culture, at least the popular culture of mycology, mushroom science.
“So every year, when Christmas draws near, Pfister gathers the students in his introductory botany class, and, no doubt with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, tells the tale of Santa and the psychedelic mushrooms.”
This was clearly a fun fluff piece that isn’t super subtle about the fact that this is just a fun yarn – it’s a modern myth about an ancient myth. But we can’t have nice, fun, eye-twinkling things like this today. As the story gets passed from outlet to outlet, the “subtle” playfulness gets dropped. What is actually a story about a biology professor goofing around with his students with a fun lecture every Christmas becomes the SECRET TRUTH OF SANTA CLAUS, which leaves it to annoying buzzkills like me to pipe up and say “well actually that’s not true.”
Yeah, that tracks. It seems to take very little for some ideas to enter popular consciousness, and a few years of one professor at a prestigious university telling a compelling story? That could plant the notion not just in the heads of a lot of people, but people who, by virtue of being Harvard graduates, will be taken seriously. I used to play around with convincing people of things that weren’t true, as a child. I think I got close to convincing a neighboring kid that I was a ghost once, and that a local albino skunk was my ghost pet. In high school I would sometimes try to persuade people that A Field Guide To Little Known and Seldom Seen Birds of North America was real, or that Rhinogradentia was an actual order of island-dwelling mammals. As I got older, and saw the damage that lies combined with people’s credulity could do, I guess the game lost its charm for me.
Still, I’m glad to know where that story came from. It’s interesting to see how we develop mythology about mythology, in a way that almost makes me think of tales of divine regime change, like the way the gods of ancient Greece overthrew their titan parents/predecessors. As ever, it makes me wonder how many religions began with misunderstandings that could have actually been resolved, had things gone just a little differently. It sometimes feels like, among all the deliberately created and promoted propaganda, some stories just escape and spread like an invasive species, taking advantage of the rich, safe environment in which they find themselves. I wonder what other new “explanations” will arise for Santa and other such things, in the decades to come.