You only have to look at pictures of Santa to see how much he has taken to our ‘too much of a good thing is a very good thing indeed’ ethos. You don’t get cheeks that red and a waist that size without some serious commitment to having a good time. But it’s one of the ancestral traditions behind the story of Santa Claus that has really endeared him to us and for which he will always be our most honoured guest.
As with so many rather wonderful stories, this one begins with an indigenous tribe from the Arctic Circle – the Koryaks of Siberia – and the ingestion of a sizeable amount of hallucinogenic mushrooms.
It seems that on the night of the Winter Solstice, a Koryak shaman would ingest mushrooms called Fly Agaric and then launch himself into a spiritual journey to the Tree of Life which was found by the North Star and which held all the answers to their problems. These ‘shrooms are seriously toxic, but the Koryaks had discovered a way of removing the toxins by feeding them to their reindeer who would get high from them and then pee. Their digestive systems would filter out the fatal toxins, making their urine safe for humans to drink to get high. The mushrooms were also made safer by drying them out over a fire, but it appears the Shamen were so off their faces most of the time this reindeer pee thing had a certain unfortunate appeal.
When he went out to initially gather the mushrooms, the Shaman would wear a red outfit with white trim, taking with him a large and presumably somewhat damp sack to contain his hallucinogenic haul.
Returning to the solstice ceremony in his yurt, it being in the dead of an Arctic winter, he would often find the door to the yurt blocked by snow and so his only recourse was to climb down through the hole in the roof, passing out some of the dried ‘shrooms to the assembled guests as gifts as he did so.
Interestingly, as well as inducing powerful hallucinations, the Fly Agaric mushrooms stimulate the muscular system in the same way a surge of adrenaline might. The reindeer that had fed on them would literally become high and mighty, jumping so high that it was said they looked like they were flying. The high would also make the Shaman feel like they were flying and it doesn’t take much of a leap to see how a legend involving mashed-up Shaman and reindeer flying to the North Star to retrieve the gifts of knowledge which they would then pass out amongst the villagers became the stuff of the Santa Claus myth we know and love. Add in a bit of Germanic and Nordic mythology, some Dutch traditions via Turkey, Clement Clark Moore’s famous poem, ‘A Visit From St Nicholas’ and Coca-Cola’s ad campaign from the 1930s and there we have it – a Very Merry Xmas to all our readers, indeed.