Flying reindeer? Red and white clothing? Climbing down the chimney bearing gifts? You may be surprised to learn the origin of these images.
Most people are familiar with the traditional image of Father Christmas (aka Santa Claus). The 1823 poem of Major Henry Livingston Jr, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas‘1 crystallised this image, and countless Christmas cards reinforced it. Father Christmas appears as a rather plump, white-bearded old man, dressed in red clothing with white buttons and trimmings. Such imagery also frequently depicts him:
- Flying through the air.
- Flying through the air in or on a sleigh, pulled by reindeer.
- Delivering children’s presents down a chimney.
Although an advertising campaign by the Coca Cola Company in the 1930s made this image of Father Christmas almost universal, it was fairly ubiquitous by the late 19th Century. With an expansion of global exploration in Victorian times, travellers returned home from visiting the Sami of Lapland2 with the story of flying reindeer, spreading the tale all over central Europe.
The question arises; does some underlying connection pull all these characteristics together into a coherent synthesis? Perhaps…
Although the Johnny Marks hit song, ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ popularised the link between reindeer and Father Christmas in 1949, the association of reindeer with Christmas was already well established. For example, centuries before the development of the legend of Father Christmas, English texts from the Renaissance mention reindeer antlers being displayed during Christmas festivities.
The first reference in print connecting Santa Claus and reindeer appears in the 1823 poem ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ by Major Henry Livingston Jr (the famous ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’).
Reindeer are a kind of deer found in the cold regions of Europe and North America (locally referred to as ‘caribou’). They feed on grass and lichens, but also have a taste for the fly agaric toadstool, Amanita muscaria, because of its intoxicating and euphoric effects. Amanita muscaria is found in pine and birch woods of western North America, northern Europe, and Asia.
The Sami have a custom of feeding fly agaric to their deer and collecting the urine to drink. The reindeer’s digestive system metabolises the more poisonous components of the toadstool, leaving urine with the hallucinogenic and psychotropic elements of the fungus intact. Drinking the urine gives a ‘high’ similar to taking LSD. Under the hallucinatory effects of the drink, the Sami thought their reindeer were flying through space, looking down on the world. The reindeers’ liking for the toadstool hallucinogens are such that they, in turn, have been known to eat the snow on which intoxicated humans have urinated, creating a reciprocating cycle.
When the first missionaries reached Lapland they heard stories of such reindeer flight, and integrated those tales into the existing Christmas folklore of Western cultures concerning Saint Nicholas.
Red and White Clothing
The word ‘toadstool’ refers to poisonous or inedible mushrooms.
The Amanita muscaria toadstool, instantly recognisable for its brilliant scarlet cap with white warts, has long been used in the rituals of certain Asian societies. This use has arisen due to the psychotropic and hallucinogenic compounds contained within the toadstool. Ingestion leads to ‘expanded perception,’ macropsia (perceiving objects as enlarged)3, rapid heartbeat, dry mouth, and the belief that one could talk directly with one’s god. It is no accident that fly agaric toadstools often appear in books of fairy tales.
Fly agaric is a source of the hallucinogenic components ibotenic acid (an amino acid) and muscimol. Ibotenic acid, only present in fresh mushrooms, has insecticidal properties4. When dried, ibotenic acid degrades (decarboxylates) into muscimol5, which has ten times the potency. Taken orally, Ibotenic acid is entheogenically active6 at 50-100 mg, whilst muscimol displays activity at 10-15 mg.
The shamans7 of Siberia use Amanita muscaria for recreational or ritualistic purposes. They use a dried preparation called ‘mukhomor’ to speak to their gods. These people, the Kamchadales and the Koryaks, eat between one and three dried mushrooms. They believe that smaller mushrooms and those with a large quantity of small warts are more active than pale red ones and ones with fewer spots. The Koryak women chew the sun-dried agaric and roll the product into small sausages, which the men swallow. The Koryaks also eat the flesh of slaughtered reindeer which have recently eaten fly agaric, but whose psychotropic condition has subsided. In a similar fashion to the Sami, the Siberians discovered that their urine contained the active principle of the fungi and they could consume this recycled product with less of the undesirable poisonous effects of the raw toadstool.
During a mushroom-induced trance, the shaman would start to twitch and sweat before falling into a deep coma-like sleep. During his coma, the shaman’s soul left his body as an animal and flew to the ‘other world’ where it communicated with the spirits. The shaman hoped these spirits could help him deal with major problems, such as outbreaks of sickness in the village, by imparting medical knowledge from the gods.
On awaking, the shaman found their muscular systems had been so stimulated that they were able to perform spectacular physical feats with seemingly little effort — such as making a gigantic leap to clear a small obstacle. The effect on animals was the same, and a ‘bemushroomed’8 reindeer traditionally guarded each shaman.
The poorer classes, who could not afford the time to gather the toadstools, would drink the urine of the better-off, collected in bowls or skin bags. Evidence suggests the drug’s hallucinogens remained effective even having passed through five or six people, and some scholars maintain that this is the true origin of the expression ‘to get pissed’ — rather than having anything to do with alcohol intoxication9.
The fly agaric may have been one of the earliest entheogens, that is hallucinogenic substances used for religious or shamanic purposes. Such use dates back as much as 10,000 years. The oldest archaeological evidence discovered so far of mushroom use by man exists as an image in a cave in Tassili, Algeria. The image dates back to 3500 BCE and depicts the mushrooms with electrified auras outlining dancing shamans.
Furthermore, the fly agaric has appeared for a long time as a popular image on Christmas cards in central Europe. In Kocevye, in southern Yugoslavia, folklore tells of the Germanic god, Wotan (the king of the gods, synonymous with the Norse god, Odin) who rides on horseback through the woods on Christmas night, pursued by devils. Red and white flecks of blood and foam spray from the horse’s mouth to the ground, where fly agaric toadstools emerge in the following year.
Climbing Down the Chimney Bearing Gifts
Siberian shamans live in tepee-like structures made of reindeer skin, called yurts, with a roof supported by a birch pole and a smokehole at the top. At the midwinter festivals of Annual Renewal, the shaman gathers the fly agaric from under sacred trees. Interestingly, whilst harvesting the toadstools, the shaman wears special attire, consisting of red and white fur-trimmed coats and long black boots ie, very much like the modern day depiction of Santa Claus. He then enters his yurt through the smokehole, carrying a sack full of dried fly agaric, and descends the birch pole to the floor. Once inside, the shaman performs his ceremonies and shares out the toadstool’s gifts with those gathered inside. Following this, he leaves up the pole and back through the smokehole.
It is interesting to note that, in central Europe, the fly agaric has been adopted as the symbol of chimney sweeps.
Saint Nicholas is a legendary figure who supposedly lived during the 4th Century. He is best known as the patron saint of children, to whom he brings presents on the eve of his feast day, 6th December.
Most religious historians now agree that St Nicholas never actually existed, but was instead a Christianized amalgam of the historical bishops, Nicholas of Myra (4th Century) and Nicholas of Sion (d. 564) together with a number of pagan gods including the Teutonic god, Hold Nickar, corresponding to the Greek god, Poseidon. Legend tells that Hold Nickar galloped through the sky during the winter solstice, granting favours to his worshippers below.
St Nicholas is associated with a number of miracles, but it is the following one that integrates him into the legend of Santa Claus:
There was a nobleman who had three daughters, and who had fallen on hard times. As the nobleman could not afford their dowries his daughters had little prospect of marriage; and so they faced a life of prostitution. St. Nicholas heard of this and, one night, threw a sack of gold through a window of the nobleman’s castle. The sack contained enough gold to provide for one daughter’s marriage. The next night he tossed another sack of gold through the window for the second daughter. But, on the third night the window was closed, so St. Nicholas dropped the third sack of gold down the chimney. On hearing of this, townsfolk began hanging stockings by the fireplace at night to collect any gold that might come their way.
So also was born the tradition of the Christmas stocking and Santa arriving down the chimney.
The early Christians soon incorporated these traditions and folklore into their own ‘Holy Day’. Many images of Saint Nicholas from these early times show him wearing the red and white robes of bishops of the Roman Catholic church or standing in front of a red background with white spots, the design of the Amanita mushroom.
It would appear that around 1300AD, imagery of St Nicholas fused with the pagan god Wotan. Wotan rode an eight-legged white horse, Sleipnir, through the night skies, his long white beard blowing in the wind. Prior to this time, Saint Nicholas was depicted as having a dark beard.
In 1823, Major Henry Livingston published his ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas…’ poem in which the connection between Santa Claus and reindeer appeared for the first time. Here, eight reindeer pulled a white-bearded Santa Claus in a sleigh. Livingston based his ideas on popular views of Christmas based mainly on his knowledge of diverse customs involving St Nicholas, brought to the area by Dutch, German and Scandinavian immigrants. Perhaps the eight reindeer echo Wotan’s eight-legged steed.
And to All a Good Night
In summary, it seems quite possible that the traditional image of Father Christmas, described in Livingston’s poem and universalised by the Coca Cola Company during the 1930s, has its real origins in shamanistic rituals involving the red and white fly agaric toadstool. From climbing into chimneys and gift giving, to dressing in red and white and flying through the air with reindeers, travellers and storytellers have fused these ancient customs with other pagan traditions and imagery. As is the wont of Christianity, these pagan customs have pragmatically been adapted and integrated into our Christmas traditions.
1 Attributed until recently to the author and scholar Clement Clarke Moore.
2 One of the oldest indigenous cultures in the world.
3 This is almost certainly the origin of the episode in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) where Alice eats a mushroom, one side of which makes her grow very tall, while the other makes her very small.
4 People once chopped the toadstool up and floated pieces in milk to attract, intoxicate and kill flies. Hence, the name ‘fly agaric’.
5 Ibotenic acid is alpha-amino3-hydroxy-5-isoxazole acetic acid. This is decarboxylated to form muscimol (3-hydroxy-5-aminomethyl isoxazole).
6 Capable of inducing an altered state of consciousness.
7 Village holy men.
8 Word coined by the ethnomycologist, Robert Gordon Wasson, to describe the state of mushroom intoxication.
9 Indeed, urine-drinking activity preceded alcohol consumption by thousands of years.