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The original Santa was probably a reindeer-herding medicine man in the far north of what is now Finland, and when he climbed down other people's chimneys he was probably tripping on mushrooms.
There are two competing theories about the origins of Santa.
There’s the traditional explanation, which is an ancient fable about Christian virtue which spread across medieval Europe and then, upon landing in the United States, was promptly commercialized.
And then there’s the revisionist version, which is a tale of pre-Christian, indigenous pagan spirituality that was somehow smuggled into our modern Christian/consumerist holiday.
Not to bring conflict into this season of peace, but let’s weigh in on each contender.
The first is the one you’re probably vaguely familiar with, or have at least heard of: the story of Saint Nicholas.
Nicholas (or Nikolaos) was born in Greece in the third century A.D. He became a bishop in Myra, in what is now Turkey, where he was persecuted for his faith by the Romans. He inherited a bunch of money from his parents and, following Jesus’s example, gave it away to the poor.
In one story about his generosity, he came upon a poor man who couldn’t afford the dowries to marry off his three daughters, and was on the brink of selling them into prostitution. Nicholas saved the girls by anonymously giving the man gold on three consecutive evenings, one for each daughter. The first two nights, he delivered the gifts through the man’s window. On the third night, the man waited by the window to see who his mysterious benefactor was, so Nick dropped the gold down his chimney instead—and it landed in stockings the girls were hanging by the fire to dry. Ho, ho, ho!
On another occasion, Nicholas is said to have uncovered a grisly crime by a butcher who, during a famine, had murdered three children and pickled their corpses in a barrel, to sell them off to unsuspecting customers as “ham.” Old Saint Nick visited the butcher and insisted on being brought to the barrel, where he resurrected the dead children, earning him the title of Patron Saint of Children. This story is part of the Christmas tradition in France.
Eventually, the Dutch “Sint Nicolaas” became “SinterKlaas,” which became “Santa Claus” in America. St. Nick was immortalized in the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas”—and, in 1931, Coca-Cola turned him into a fat, bearded man who has been firmly lodged in the popular consciousness ever since.
This genealogy leaves a lot of questions unanswered. If Saint Nicholas were a Greek who lived in Turkey, how did he end up in the North Pole? Why does he travel on a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer? Why does he put his presents under a dead tree in our living rooms that we hang ornaments on?
Which brings us to the revisionist version.
That theory starts with the Amanita muscaria, the most famous mushroom on Earth. You’re familiar with the Amanita muscaria (also known as the fly agaric), whether you know it or not. It’s the one with the white stem and the red cap with white spots on it. It’s the mushroom foe in Super Mario Brothers. It’s the houses the Smurfs live in. It’s the emoji for mushroom 🍄.
The Amanita muscaria is a psychoactive mushroom that gives humans who consume it the sensation of flying. In the Arctic, reindeer feast on it. It’s highly toxic to humans, but when processed through the reindeer’s kidneys, it is purged of its toxins. The indigenous people of Lapland (the region now called Sápmi) in Northern Finland, whose traditional lifestyle centered on following and, later, herding the reindeer, used to consume the drug safely by drinking the reindeers’ urine.
The traditional culture of those early Finns, known as the Sámi, was shamanistic. They believed that the Amanita muscaria that brought the reindeer its sustenance also brought wisdom to humans. At the time of the celebration of the Winter Solstice, the Sámi’s shamans would consume the drug and then visit prominent Sámi households to pass along the insights that they achieved through their hallucinogenic trips. In honor of the mushroom, they would dress in its likeness, in a red and white costume. The Sámi lived in yurts, which, at that time of the year, were often snowed in. So, the shamans would often pop in through the hole in the roof that served as the yurt’s chimney, bearing the gifts of their psychedelically inspired wisdom.
The Amanita muscaria has a symbiotic relationship with certain tree species. In Lapland, where the Sámi lived, they grow at the foot of pines and birches, like gifts under a Christmas tree. Besides drinking reindeer urine, the mushrooms could also be dried out to reduce their toxicity while preserving their psychoactivity. This would be done by hanging them on tree branches like Christmas ornaments, or putting them in socks and hanging them by the fire.
If only for the number of weird traditions it explains, this trippy theory is a lot more satisfying to me than the Saint Nick fable.
But the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
It’s possible that, like Easter, our Christmas traditions are a blend of Christian and pagan themes. Saint Nicholas was apparently a real person whose death on December 6 is still celebrated as a holiday in its own right. His starring role may have been bumped forward a few weeks to coincide with the pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice, which the early church had already co-opted and called Jesus’ birthday. Swept up in that co-optation, perhaps, were these Sámi shamanistic traditions.
As it happens, one of the original scholars of the Dead Sea Scrolls had a theory that the entire religion of Christianity was founded on an ancient shamanistic Middle Eastern fertility cult that worshiped the Amanita muscaria, so maybe the mushroom is even more connected to the birth of Jesus than to Santa Claus.
But that’s a heresy for another time.
Merry Christmas to all.