Yule, yellow snow, psychedelic mushrooms and the true meaning of Christmas
Originally published in two parts for Gifts From Earth on December 30, 2015 Philip]
Boy, the Holidays just aren’t what they used to be. What happened to those old holiday traditions that brought the community together like stringing popcorn on the tree or singing carols through the neighborhood or recycling your amanitas infused urine for the community to enjoy for the Solstice celebration. Yes, that’s right, our current “Santa Mythology” is steeped in some strange lore that we’ll begin to explore in this story.
The origins of both medicine and religion have some similar roots. Many of them reach thousands of years back to Tengerian tradition of Shamanic myth, magic and medicine. The Tengerian Shamanic tradition of Siberia was also influential on the traditional Christmas celebration and the Santa Claus mythos connected to it, as we’ll see today.
Among these cultures are the northern Tungusic people, Lapps, Evenki and other Siberian tribes. The Evenki were predominantly hunter-gatherers and reindeer herders as were most living in the harsh region. The Evenki people’s word “saman” meaning “one who knows the spirits” is the root of the word describing the “medicine man” type religious healer in pre-modern cultures. An important part of the religious and healing ceremonies of the Tengerian Shamanic medicine man was the use of “fly agaric” the Amanitas muscaria mushroom, better known colloquially as a “red-cap” or “toadstool.”
If you’ve seen pictures of giant red warty mushrooms in fairy tale drawings or little white spotted mushrooms in Byzantine art featuring Jesus then you’ve seen the amanitas mushroom. Interestingly enough, it’s not called a toadstool because toads are known to sit on it, rather because of a constituent that also happens to be found in “eyes of newts”(or Bufo Alvarius, the Sonoran Desert Toad) and other witchy sounding formulas.
Santa Claus (with his reindeer and red cap and stockings) is ” a modern counterpart of a shaman, who consumed mind-altering plants and fungi to commune with the spirit world,” according to Dr. John Rush, anthropology instructor at Sierra College in Rocklin, Calif.
In order to prepare the amanitas mushroom (which can be a potent toxin) the mushrooms were placed in a large sock and hung over the hearth to dry. Stockings, anyone? The “gift of the mushroom” was often found beneath pine trees. This could also be an explanation for the “red, white and green” colors being associated with Christmas celebrations. The Shaman himself, when giving the gift of muscaria throughout the frozen Siberian Winter Solstice would appear dressed as a giant amanitas (with a red cap and white dots on his suit).
Even today in Lappland (a portion of Finland inhabited by the indigenous Sami people) diminutive reindeer herders wear brightly Christmas colored clothing and herd reindeers. That “elf” style hat, has a name you know. Yes, it’s a “Lapplander hat.”
Lapplanders in traditional garb
Stay tuned next as we explain why the reindeer games were really gross, how modern civilization may not have existed if some brave souls hadn’t eaten the yellow snow and why we put a star on an evergreen and bring it in the house once a year.
In part I of this article, we started exploring the shamanic roots of the Santa Claus legend and how it ties in to the Northern European, Siberian and Arctic circle tribes such as the Sami and Evenki. The Sami, also known as Laplanders, are a nomadic Finnish tribe who just happen to wear brightly colored elf-style clothing and pointy hats when they’re not herding, you guessed it, reindeer, are responsible for a lot of the original Yule celebratory rituals that bled into the Christmas tradition that took place right around the same Solstice period.
To understand the importance of these Yule rites, you have to consider the harsh conditions in Siberia and Arctic Finland. This is the land of the midnight Sun. The (quite literal) dark side of the midnight sun is the end of Autumn, the shortest day of the year is Winter Solstice and around this time the sun nearly disappears almost entirely for that shortest and darkest day of the Solstice that marks the beginning of the Yule celebration.
As we mentioned in the last story, long before the story of the Magi giving gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, the Yule-tide season was known in these cold, dark areas as a time of celebration and gift giving. The gift in question was generally the amanitas muscaria mushroom. The redcap fungus with the distinctive white spots were known as the “fruit” of the evergreens and firs they were often found under. Mystified by the mycelial network forming without any apparent seeds being dropped, this phenomenon was occasionally referred to as a “virgin birth.”
Now we already showed how the traditional Santa legend was heavily shaped by Shamanic tradition, right down to drying the amanitas muscaria mushrooms in a large stocking over the hearth and bringing evergreens indoors to fend off the cold and dark. Imagine now, it’s another cold Finnic or Siberian winter in pre-history. You’re cold and the longest days only last for a few hours of dim, blue light here this close to the Solstice. All of a sudden you see what looks like a giant red cap mushroom heading towards you on a reindeer, chortling in the sheer ecstasy (ex- stasis, meaning to literally come “outside” of one’s self) of shamanic delirium. He hands you a stocking full of fire dried red cap mushrooms in a stocking. Considering the high likelihood of seasonal affective depression being exacerbated by the harsh Arctic condition, the idea of Yuletide gift giving was helpful for getting through the harsh winters.
The “gift” of the amanitas was generally discovered under certain varietals of evergreens (yes, the same sorts of pine and first that many of us still haul into the house at the end of the year) echoing the “Yule log” rite which purportedly staved away the frosty, near perma-darkness of the darkest point in the year in the land of the Midnight Sun.
Prancing and dancing reindeer? Yeah, we got those. In fact there’s a possibility that discovery of the filtration of the amanitas toxins through urine was an important part of the tradition. Reindeer and tribesmen alike would share in a mug of “recycled” amanitas. Which gives a whole new meaning to the old saying about the “yellow snow.”
The Arctic reindeer herding tribes who used amanitas noticed that the reindeers enjoyed chewing the fungal “fruit” of the evergreens after which they got “frisky” and seemed to dance and prance around for a while. This coupled with the fact that amanitas hallucinations often involve delusions of flying and size distortion makes a lot of the rest of the seeming non sequiturs in our Holiday tradition make a little more sense.
So, elf clothing, reindeer, red caps with white puffballs, gift giving, taking trees indoors and stockings full of gifts, eh? Yes, it’s beginning to sound a lot like Christmas, isn’t it? Stay tuned as we continue our exploration into the ethnobotanical roots of the traditional Christmas celebration soon. In our next story we’ll cover more parallels and connections between the pre-Christian pagan Solstice traditions and the more modern holiday traditions that occurred as a result.