4"H Blown glass ornament. Crafted by a small, family-run business in Valentine, a rustic "frontier" town in the picturesque Sand Hills region of north- central Nebraska.
Amanita Muscaria and the Origins of Christmas
Have you ever wondered how Christmas traditions came to be? From the symbol of the Christmas tree, the giving of gifts and stocking by the fire to Santa Claus and flying Reindeer, we have mushrooms to thank!
Amanita Muscaria, or more commonly known as fly agaric, have been used for thousands of years by the Shamans of the Arctic circle to enable their spiritual journey around the time of Winter Solstice.
Amanitas are a hallucinogenic mushroom commonly found in the northern regions of Europe and Siberia growing beneath pine trees. These mushrooms have a red or reddish-brown cap, with obvious white dots adorning the top of the cap.
Here are a few elements of Our Christmas Traditions that have been passed down from the traditional use of these mushrooms, and incorporated to this day into our holiday traditions:
The Christmas tree– Amanitas typically grew beneath pine trees. One of the ways to cure the mushrooms and mellow their harmful poisons is to dry them. The shamans of the Koryak and the Lapps would pick the mushrooms and hang them on the branches of the pines to dry, herein lies the origin of the ornament! The belief in the world tree emanating from beneath the north star in also endemic to the shamans of the arctic circle, as everything rotates around this central point. Here we find the tradition of the star atop the Christmas tree, pre-dating Christian influence in northern Europe by thousands of year. We can also thank amanitas for the existence of tinsel in our holiday traditions. The Shamans who collected amanitas, thought of the mushrooms as existing from a “virgin birth”, as they appeared from seemingly nothing, only the morning dew giving rise to their existence. Tinsel is our modern interpretation of the morning dew, or the semen of the deities.
Christmas Gifts and Santa– amanitas were truly the first Christmas gifts. Shamans from one village to the next would gather these mushrooms and travel from home to home giving them as gifts. The traditional dress for gathering the amanitas was a white and red fur lined jacket and tall black leather boots. The mushrooms gatherers would often have to climb down the smoke holes of the traditional Yurts that families lived in in order to deliver their gift of mushrooms, as the snow would be too deep to enter through the door. Sound familiar? The rosy cheeks and nose seen on Santas throughout history is a direct side effect of indulging in these magic mushrooms which give the face a ruddy glow when consumed. And Santa’s jolly laugh could just be the effect of euphoria and joy brought on by these colorful little hallucinogenics.
Stocking Hung by the Fire– Those stockings hung by the fireplace with care, all started with another method of drying the amanitas in order to limit the harmful effects, and make them safer for consumption. The mushrooms would be hung inside of tall winter socks above the fire to dry.
Flying Reindeer– One of the strangest ways to minimize the harmful toxins in the amanitas was to feed them to reindeer and then drink the reindeer urine! As bizarre as that may seem, it was the most effective way to maintain a high hallucinogenic quality and limit the negative effects on the human body. It is believed that this is the origin of flying reindeer; as the reindeer would become spry, the more mushrooms they consumed, and the use of the amanitas gave the imbiber a perspective that objects (including reindeer) would be floating or flying.
The cultural usage and history of Amanita Muscaria, and the modern traditions of Christmas are more intertwined that we might have ever thought. This is only one example of the roots of our modern day practices reaching far back in time.