The tale of Santa Claus and Christmas can be traced back to numerous different origins and cultures throughout history. The most popular narrative is the legend of Saint Nicholas, a Christian bishop of Greek descent who was known for his kindness and generosity. It’s a great story, but it’s not the only historical account of Santa Claus, and personally, it’s not my favorite rendition.
The reality is that winter festivals and a version of “Christmas” have been celebrated since long before Christianity swept across the world, and certain elements of Santa Claus’ life and common Christmas themes seem to better align with ancient Pagan and Shamanic traditions of centuries prior. In this article, we’ll explore the Siberian and Arctic regions, where, as the story goes, ‘Santa’ was actually a local shaman who dropped bags of psychedelic mushrooms into the homes of residents during the winter solstice.
What is Paganism?
In the mainstream world, there are a lot of preconceived notions about paganism connecting it to witchcraft and Satanism, but these ideas simply are not rooted in any sort of fact. The word ‘Pagan’ is an umbrella term coming from the Latin word ‘paganus’ which can be roughly translated to mean “those who live in the country”.
When Christianity began to take hold in the Roman Empire, it happened mainly in larger cities. The new Christians began using the word ‘pagan’ to describe those living in rural areas who continued to follow and believe in the old ways.
Nowadays, a Pagan is basically anyone who is spiritual but falls out of the realms of major religion, although the definition does still vary a bit depending on who you ask. Christians, Jews, and Muslims use this term to categorize those involved in “any religious act, practice, or ceremony” that is not theirs. Hindus, Buddhists, and others define it as “being without a religion”.
In a way, these definitions are accurate. Paganism is technically not a religion, but a system of overlapping beliefs lacking an official doctrine or text (like the Bible, Koran, Tanakh, etc.). A common thread among Pagans is a belief in the divine and natural order of the universe.
Christmas before Christianity
In modern culture, Christmas is a Christian holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ and celebrated on the 25th of December. But prior to the birth of Christianity, winter festivals with Christmas-like elements were incredibly popular among European and Siberian Pagans. Some of the Christmas traditions that we still know and love today stem from Celtic winter celebrations, like the hanging of mistletoe and ivy.
Take the Germanic, midwinter festival known as Yule. It was time for festivities, baking, decorating, gift giving, and family that occurred over a period of 12 nights around the winter solstice (yes, that is where 12 days of Christmas comes from). So much of the current iconography and themes that we associate with modern-day Christmas – such as the Yule log, decorated trees, the wreath, holly, mistletoe, and the star – all originated from Yule.
Other European cultures had their own festivals and celebrations, components of which were stolen by Christian settlers as well. Ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a festival celebrated from December 17th to 23rd to thank the agricultural god Saturn. During Saturnalia, people would also decorate their homes with intricate wreaths and different types of greenery.
Even Christmas carols come from the ‘Kondela’, an Eastern European, pagan custom of singing seasonal songs to drive away evil. These kondelas were sung during their winter festivities to protect the villages and usher in a blessed new year.
Santa the Siberian Mushroom Shaman
Some of our Christmas customs even come from further east, from the Evenki Northern Tungusic people in what is currently known as Siberia. The Evenki were hunter-gatherers and reindeer herders, and their survival depended almost entirely on the latter. Reindeer provided the tribes with almost all of their basic needs including food, transportation, milk, clothing, tools made from the bones and antlers, as well as cultural, spiritual, and artistic inspiration and customs.
The Evenki participated in a form of Paganism, known as Shamanism. The word “shaman” can be traced back to the Tungus word “saman”, which can be loosely defined as “one who talks to spirits”. A prominent aspect in their Shamanic rituals included the consumption of Amanita muscaria, or the Fly Agaric Mushroom. This fungus, arguably the most recognizable species of toadstool mushroom, is known for its powerful psychoactive effects, attributable to the presence of the neurotoxins ibotenic acid and muscimol.
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Amanita muscaria was sacred to the indigenous people of Siberia and the Evenki Shaman used them regularly during ceremonies and rituals. Because these mushrooms can be very toxic, they need to dry a bit before eating. While collecting the mushrooms, people would lay them out under the big evergreen trees in the woods, very much resembling a present-day Christmas tree with red and white bulbous ornaments.
“Why do people bring pine trees into their houses at the Winter Solstice, placing brightly colored (red and white) packages under their boughs, as gifts to show their love for each other?” asks James Arthur, author of Mushrooms and Mankind. “It is because, underneath the pine bough is the exact location where one would find this ‘Most Sacred’ substance, the Amanita muscaria, in the wild.”
Once ready, the shaman would collect all the mushrooms in a large sac and deliver them to the villagers as gifts during the winter solstice. The villagers would then continue the process of drying their mushrooms by handing them in a sock near the fire. Sounds vaguely familiar right? It’s because the Santa we tell our children about today is just a modern counterpart of an ancient shaman who consumed psychedelic plants to connect with the natural and spiritual world.
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Magical Reindeer, Chimney Drops, and other stories
Again, reindeer play a pivotal role of the Tungusic people’s existence and success. According to religious historian Mircea Eliade, “shamans take on a chimeric association with regional animals including wolves, bears, fish, and reindeer. The shaman dies to his old identity as he assumes this hybrid role, where the animal symbolizes a real and direct connection with the beyond.”
In Siberia, it’s also not uncommon for reindeer to eat the Amanita mushrooms, and yes, they do feel the psychotropic effects to some extent, although how ‘high’ they actually get still remains up for debate. Some experts theorize that, while humans seek out psychedelics to feel of sensation of spiritual connection, some animals might use them to make the monotony of a cold, bleak, depressing winter a bit more tolerable.
The chimney symbology hails from these pagan, shamanistic Siberian communities as well. We know that shamans were collecting magic mushrooms and delivering them to the homes of their people, but how they entered the homes is another story. Since it was common to be snowed in during that time of the year, the teepee-like homes had an opening in the roof to allow smoke from fireplaces to escape and for people to enter and exit when there was too much snow. And so the Santa chimney story was born.
Speaking of mushrooms and gift giving, this story is not unique to Siberian shamans, as surprising as that sounds. The Sami Shamans of Lapland in Northern Finland share similar tales of winter parties, passing out healing gifts to children, and drying psychedelic mushrooms under trees.
“An all-knowing man who defies space and time? Flying reindeer? Reindeer-drawn sleds? Climbing down the chimney? The giving of gifts? The tales of the Sami shamans have it all,” says Matthew Salton director/producer of New York Times Op-Docs Santa is a Psychedelic Mushroom.
“Regional connections shouldn’t surprise us,” he added. “Wherever psychedelics appear in nature, rituals have emerged to celebrate them. Secret societies being built around the notion of death and resurrection are a repeated historical phenomenon. And what story better fits the mythos of Santa Claus, a man dressed like a psychedelic mushroom who is reborn every year, flying around the world bringing healing gifts to children, yet is never seen by a soul?”
Almost every single contemporary Christmas tradition can be traced back to paganism, and the same can be said for Easter and Halloween. When the first Christian missionaries were forcibly converting the people of Europe, they found it easier and less controversial to simply repackage the annual festivities as “Christian Holidays” and just let people continue celebrating as they had been.
But just because we have been fed a certain story our whole lives, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the ultimate truth. As a matter of fact, most of what we know about holidays, religion, and history is inaccurate and we’re learning more every day about the importance to due diligence and doing your own research.
When you get down to the core of it, the idea of Santa being a mushroom-eating shaman who rode an intoxicated reindeer to deliver gifts to local children on the winter solstice, oddly, makes more sense than the alternative.
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Disclaimer: Hi, I’m a researcher and writer. I’m not a doctor, lawyer, or businessperson. All information in my articles is sourced and referenced, and all opinions stated are mine. I am not giving anyone advice, and though I am more than happy to discuss topics, should someone have a further question or concern, they should seek guidance from a relevant professional.