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The Myth of the Psychedelic Santa

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The Myth of the Psychedelic Santa

Be the nerdiest person at your holiday parties this year by dispelling one of the most persistent psychedelic history myths!

As many of you know, some folks today compare Santa Claus with the Amanita muscaria mushroom, also known as fly agaric. The most oft-used points of comparison are the following: 

  1. Santa Claus derives from European “Father Christmas” characters who are themselves based on Siberian shamans. 
  2. The red and white of Santa’s costume is like the red and white of the Amanita muscaria mushroom, this correlation some kind of echo reaching us all the way from Siberia and its Amanita muscaria-eating shamans. 
  3. Santa’s flying reindeer are an echo of Siberian reindeer who eat Amanita muscaria
  4. Christians chose evergreens for Christmas trees based on where Siberian shamans find mushrooms.

All of this is historically wrong. 

Let’s begin!

Santa Claus does Not Derive from European Folk Figures

Some erroneously link Santa Claus to the various “Father Christmas” figures of Europe. The idea is that these Solstice characters are themselves based on Siberian shamans who consume Amanita muscaria. I am not sure how true the latter is—Father Christmas could very well be based on a Siberian shaman (or not). For our purposes, it doesn’t matter because Santa Claus is based on none of them. 

Instead, he is based on Nicholas of Myra, a real person from history whose life straddled the 2nd-3rd centuries. His Feast Day was and still is celebrated on Dec 6—he had nothing to do with the solstice, Saturnalia, Yule, or any Father Christmas characters. And he most certainly is not based on any Siberian shaman. 

Santa Claus as we know him today was invented in the 1800s, not by one person, but by several, basing him off the patron saint of Dutch New York, St. Nicholas. 

Red and White Costume as a Symbol of Amanita muscaria

The first time St. Nick’s outfit is mentioned comes in Washington Irving’s A Knickerbocker History of New York (1809). Here, Irving is quite clear—St. Nick does not dress in red and white, but instead as a Dutch sailor (who typically wore blue jackets). The blue makes more historical sense than red because of the Dutch’s trading in India, a country whose indigo plant revolutionized blue textile dyes. Nonetheless, if St. Nick’s outfit truly derives from A. muscaria (because he was an echo of a Siberian shaman) there would be evidence for it at exactly this point in history.

And yet, Irving says nothing about A. muscaria or Siberian shamans.

Print of St Nicholas by John Pintard (1810).

The first pictorial representation we get of St. Nick appears on a broadside commissioned by John Pintard in 1810. Here, St. Nick is dressed as a bishop. The image is in black and white, so we can’t really say for sure what Pintard had in mind, but he was probably thinking of the usual colors for a bishop in his own day: gold and white. And, for argument’s sake, let’s say that Pintard did think of St. Nick’s outfit as having some red in it … where is the evidence that that comes from the mushroom? After all, Pintard says nothing about mingling his favorite saint with A. muscaria or Siberian shamanism in any of the abundant letters and other writings we have from him. 

The next description we get of Santa’s outfit comes in 1822 with arguably the most famous poem ever written on American soil: “A Visit from St. Nick.” And here, Clement Clark Moore, the author of the poem, says only that “he was dressed all in fur.” Moore doesn’t compare St. Nick’s outfit to fungi, but to a kind of animal skin, fur-suit. He doesn’t say what color(s) the suit is, but there isn’t any reason to assume he meant red and white.

From just these three men alone, we see St. Nick’s outfit go through a variety of changes: First, as a Dutch sailor, next as a bishop, and finally as an elf in scruffy, hooded, pajamas.

In fact, all throughout the 1800s, St. Nick’s outfit went through a variety of changes in both style and color. Sometimes he is dressed in all white. Other times, in a long brown hooded robe, among many others. 

A modern analogy! 

Take a moment and ask yourself: what color is the Tooth Fairy’s outfit

You don’t know, do you? 

Of course not; no one does. And there is a very good reason for it! Namely, the Tooth Fairy’s outfit has not yet been standardized in popular culture even as late as 2022. Sometimes her dress is blue; sometimes it’s pink; sometimes it’s sparkling gold, etc. St. Nick’s costume worked the same way in the 19th century. No one in the early 1800s thought of St. Nick as having a standardized outfit anymore than you think the Tooth Fairy has a standardized outfit today. 

And here’s the thing. Siberian shamanism was a hot issue in the 1800s! So was Amanita muscaria! Siberian shamans and A. muscaria were the talk of the town, appearing in books, plays, and other pre- and post-industrial products. And yet, in none of those books or plays or artworks is there ever a mention of St. Nick or his costume.\

Nast’s “Santa Claus in Camp” image published in the 1862 Christmas issue of Harper’s Weekly.

On Thomas Nast’s Harper’s Weekly cover design, we see St. Nick. While the image is black and white, there is no missing the stars on St. Nick’s jacket and stripes on his knickers. To drive the point home, Nast even has the American flag waving over his head. This is the origin of the red and white as part of St. Nick’s costume. When those colors finally appeared in 1863, they were joined by blue, representing the American flag.

Santa’s outfit would go through more color changes after that: sometimes it was red and black. Sometimes all yellow. Sometimes red, blue, and green. And so many more. How can his outfit be based on the mushroom if no one could agree what the outfit looked like or even what color it was? 

Coca Cola’s 1931 ad campaign featuring the red and white Santa Claus.

When Coca Cola adopted Santa Claus as their spokes-elf in early 1931, they dropped all the other color patterns except red and white, as they had already been advertising in those colors. In order to believe that there is a connection between the red and white of Santa Claus’s outfit and A. muscaria, one would have to demonstrate that Coca Cola designed their logo colors based on the mushroom. Said true-believer would also have to explain how the advertisers at Coca Cola looked into the future and knew they were going to one day use Santa Claus as a marketing tool (as they had already been advertising using red and white).

Flying Reindeer

Another modern idea posing as history is that Santa’s flying reindeer derive from Siberian reindeer that eat the mushroom and get high, granting us our picture of Santa Claus flying in a sleigh. 

For starters, it is true that Siberian reindeer eat A. muscaria for its intoxicating effects. But then, so do foxes, birds, and squirrels. Santa Claus does not have any association with any of those animals. 

But there are many other historical problems with the idea. We need only look at the history of how St. Nick’s travel evolved over time to see how it all happened. St. Nick’s first mode of travel was on a boat he sailed from Spain to the Netherlands. No reindeer were present. St. Nick didn’t fly at all.

Recall the Dutch-sailor-in-a-blue-jacket version of St. Nick from A Knickerbocker History of New York. Our sailor St. Nick flies not in a sleigh but an airborne wagon, which is not pulled by any animal, reindeer or otherwise. St. Nick flew over houses in his reindeer-less wagon and dropped presents into chimneys. 

The historical problem is that this is the first time St. Nick is mentioned flying in a vehicle and there are no reindeer involved. That means that the mushroom-eating reindeer cannot possibly be the origin of Santa’s flight. 

What’s more, when St. Nick does get an association with animals on John Pintard’s 1810 broadside, they aren’t reindeer. They are bees and a dog. Bees and dogs do not have an historical association with A. muscaria. And while bees obviously have the power of flight, St. Nick does not use them to pull any vehicle.

It is only in an anonymous poem, “Olde Santeclaus with Much Delight,” (1821) that Santa first appears with a single reindeer. But Siberian reindeer cannot be the origin of St. Nick’s flight because he was already flying over a decade earlier in A Knickerbocker History of New York. 

After that, reindeer appeared again two years later in Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem “A Visit from St. Nick” (1823). While it is often assumed that the reindeer fly in that poem, a careful reading of the text suggests another possibility. 

Let’s start with St. Nick’s entry into the neighborhood: 

“The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow gave the luster of midday to objects below.” Objects below, not in the sky; on the ground—on “the new fallen snow.” 

“When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter.” On the lawn—not in the sky. 

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These reindeer did not fly into town–they walked. 

Then, so far as ascending the neighborhood rooftops, Moore is somewhat ambiguous, but he never says they flew. Rather, it sounds more like the reindeer either scaled or bounced up the side of the house. St. Nick calls out, “To the top of the porch, to the top of the wall.” If they were actually flying, Moore would have said so. Instead, they go from a lower part of the house (the porch) to a higher part of the house (the top of the wall, i.e., “the roof”).

But wait! There’s more! 

The few times Moore does use the verb “to fly” in the poem it’s clear that the context is referring to “speed,” not actual flight. For example, when he writes, “More rapid than eagles his coursers they came …” What a perfect moment to compare the eagle’s flight with that of the reindeer! Instead, Moore compares not the flight of eagles but their speed (i.e., more rapid than eagles). Incidentally, a “courser” is a really fast horse. So Moore was either saying that the reindeer are like flying horses, or he was saying that the reindeer moved so fast (like coursers) it was as if they were flying. Since horses don’t fly (well, except for horseflies!) I’m going to go ahead and say that Moore meant “fly” to mean “fast.” 

After that, around the early 1830s, St. Nick could be seen around New York riding a white horse. Other times he rides a bicycle, in a car, on a donkey, and sometimes he travels by foot! 

If Santa’s flying reindeer really derive from Siberian reindeer eating mushrooms then that fact would be in evidence right from the start. Needless to say, no matter how a person imagined St. Nick traveling around in the 1800s, there isn’t a shred of evidence anywhere that anyone looked at him or his reindeer as some kind of echo of Siberian reindeer eating A. muscaria mushrooms. 

Christmas Trees

The last claim we shall address is whether or not modern people use evergreens for Christmas trees due to Siberian shamans locating A. muscaria mushrooms beneath them. Others believe that Christmas trees derive from pagan customs performed during the Roman Saturnalia. 

Both are incorrect. 

Vintage holiday card of children gathering fly agaric under evergreens.

While it is true that during Saturnalia Romans decorated their houses with evergreen branches, this is not why Christians brought trees into their homes and started decorating them. The true origin of the Christmas tree dates not to ancient Rome but to medieval France and Germany (c. 12th-13th centuries). The tree custom had nothing to do with paganism and everything to do with the Feast Day of Saint Barbara (Dec 4th), nearly three weeks before the Solstice. The custom saw people bringing cherry, lilac, oak, and apple trees with the roots into their homes to nurse back to life in time for Christmas. The original Christmas trees weren’t evergreens at all; they were deciduous trees. Therefore, Siberian shamanism mushroom hunts cannot possibly be the origin of the practice. 

When the Protestants took over in the 1500s, they were very against what they considered to be “saint worship,” and viewed this custom for the Feast of Saint Barbara as anathema to true Christianity. But the custom was so rooted among the populace that the Protestants found it difficult to quash. And so they struck a deal: people could still bring trees in their homes but they could not be any kind of tree that needed nursing back to healthy life. In other words, no tree that had been customarily attached to a saint (like Barbara) was permitted. The only kind of tree available that fit this description was the evergreen tree because it required no nursing back to health in the winter. And so French and German people reluctantly switched from deciduous trees to the evergreen. 

Just Google It?

I can’t imagine anything less consequential than whether or not Santa Claus is based on Amanita muscaria-eating Siberian shamans. It is, in fact, a motif of which I am rather fond even though I know there isn’t any truth to it historically. And so I write this for a much larger purpose. 

Namely, we are all getting careless with how we share and promote truths about psychedelic history. We are forgetting how to look at things critically and will often share any blog or article that suits what we want to believe. 

Google searches yield multiple sources perpetuating this myth of the psychedelic Santa because it is culturally popular due to oblivious “influencers” spreading it. Bots and algorithms don’t see facts; they see numbers of searches and shares. This creates a cycle where people will consider five or six blog articles that claim Santa is based on A. muscaria—all of which are just poorly reworded versions of each other—as “proof” and “research.” 

It isn’t either.

That’s why Google isn’t reliable for serious conversations about psychedelic history (or any history, really). Yes, it is a powerful tool, and a wonderful tool at that! But far too many people mindlessly misuse said tool by seeing Google as a finishing point; it isn’t a finishing point–it’s a starting point. Because here is the hard truth: it’s not just that the entire psychedelic Renaissance is wrong about the psychedelic Santa. It’s that our entire protocol for determining truth in an age of fake news and social media narcissism is hopelessly flawed. 

And if we are this haphazard with truly insignificant topics such as the myth of the psychedelic Santa, what other false egregors might we be feeding that are far more important than this silly idea? 

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