A Very Mushroom Christmas

Image  by  JLS Photography - Alaska , courtesy of  Creative Commons  licensing.

There has been an intriguing and controversial Christmas origin story popping up on the Internet for the past few years that I wanted to share with the Think Wilder audience—could it be that several Christmas traditions are actually based on the experience of eating amanita muscaria (also commonly referred to as "fly agaric", "Mario", or "toadstool") psychedelic mushrooms? Please note that although this theory is interesting and seemingly plausible, there isn't really any solid scientific evidence or historical consensus, so please take this information with a grain of salt!

Amanita Muscaria: An Introduction

Most people are able to recognize the amanita muscaria mushroom in the wild—it has a white-gilled stalk and a (usually) red cap with white polka dots. In the Nintendo Entertainment System platform game Super Mario Bros., it is the mushroom that Mario eats to grow bigger. The mushroom is sometimes classified as poisonous, but reports of human deaths from eating amanitas are extremely rare. It is also known for its psychedelic properties, with the primary psychoactive chemical being a substance called muscimol. This is a completely different chemical that the one found in traditional psychedelic "magic mushrooms", which contain the psychoactive chemical psilocybin.

There is a clear historical use of amanitas by the people of Siberia, who used the fungi as an intoxicant and entheogen. It is speculated that people in other regions, such as the Middle East, Eurasia, North America, and Scandinavia, also consumed these fungi. There is a wide range of classifications that can be attributed to these fungi: depressant, sedative-hypnotic, dissociative, and deliriant. Perceptual phenomena such as macropsia and micropsia, which are the feelings of growing larger or shrinking in size, have also been observed, similar to Alice's experience in the famous Lewis Carroll novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Regarding toxicity, a fatal dose of amanitas is estimated to be around 15 caps. Poisoning has occurred with young children and people who attempted to consume the mushroom for a psychedelic experience. Older books sometimes warn that amanitas are "deadly", but this is in error and implies the mushroom is more toxic than it is in reality—according to the North American Mycological Association, there were no reliably documented fatalities from eating this mushroom during the 20th century and modern medical treatment is able to assist with the accidental ingestion of this mushroom. The vast majority (90% or more) of mushroom poisoning comes from eating the greenish to yellowish "death cap" or one of several white amanita species which are known as "destroying angels".  However, I do wish to be clear here—do not attempt to consume wild mushrooms without the assistance of a mycologist, or someone who has experience with identifying mushrooms.

Following this introduction to the amanita muscaria mushroom, now we can explore the many reasons people believe it is directly related to Christmas:

Flying Reindeer

Siberian reindeer consume various types of mushrooms throughout the year, but during the winter months they seem to enjoy eating amanitas and prancing around, wandering aimlessly and twitching their heads.  It is said that packs of reindeer search for hours to locate the mushrooms under the snow. Upon finding one, a reindeer will consume the mushroom and allow the other reindeer to drink his urine in an effort to share the psychedelic experience. Amanitas supposedly have a more pleasant psychedelic effect after they have been processed through the body once, as they carry a heavy body load and take a lot of work for the body to break down. It is very common to consume amanitas by drinking the urine of someone else who has already consumed them, and it is possible for the psychedelic properties to be passed through multiple rounds of urine before they are completely gone.

The people of Siberia most likely observed this typical reindeer behavior and followed suit by consuming the yellow snow cones that the reindeer create on the ground with their urine. Later, the shamans learned to eat the mushrooms themselves and drink the urine of those who have already consumed the mushrooms. Throughout history, humans have learned to use medicinal and psychoactive plants by observing wild animals and imitating their behavior.

The Siberian people revered these mushrooms for their ability to attract the reindeer, which were used to make clothing, shelter, and weapons (made from antlers), and were also consumed for sustenance. The hunters may have even learned to intentionally place the mushrooms in hunting locations to use as bait.

Santa Claus

There are several connections between Santa Claus and the amanita muscaria mushroom, starting with his name. Saint Nicholas (or "Old Saint Nick", as he is often called) is the patron "saint of children" in Siberia and supplanted the indigenous shamans who used these mushrooms. The red and white colors of Santa's suit matches the color of the mushroom's cap. However, critics of this point have pointed out that the color of Santa's suit has not always been red and white. Regardless, Siberian shamans traditionally wore red and white clothing to symbolize their relationship with these mushrooms.

Beyond the history of Saint Nicholas and the color of his suit, Santa is said to come down the chimney, similar to the mushroom-eating Siberian shamans, who also entered the medieval peasants' yurts from the top (a yurt's door and chimney became one in the same when snow piled up past the front door). The shamans even traditionally carried the mushrooms in a sack (like Santa's bag of toys) and brought them into peasants' homes through the "smoke hole" for others to enjoy. In addition, the mushrooms themselves sprout out of a white oval sack.

Santa's jolly cheer, "Ho ho ho!" is similar to the ecstatic laugh of someone who is under the influence of a psychedelic substance, and his ruddy complexion could be attributed to someone who has consumed an amanita muscaria mushroom, since it causes the skin to be flushed and glowing. Or perhaps Santa has just been drinking a fair amount of spiked egg nog? Either way, maybe he shouldn't be driving that sleigh!

Speaking of the sleigh, its origin may have come from a hallucination of flight caused by when humans consumed these mushrooms at the same time as the reindeer and noticed them prancing around in front of them. It is also possible that the sleigh is simply a metaphor for the shaman's "trip" to a celestial realm that occurs after ingesting the mushrooms. After all, Santa lives at the North Pole, which scientists claim is magnetically drifting to the area of the globe where Siberia is located.

The Christmas Tree and Decorations

Amanita muscaria mushrooms have a symbiotic relationship with pine trees and are often found growing directly beneath them. The ancient lore of Northern Europe describes them as "red presents under the tree". It makes sense that we would place our actual gifts under the tree nowadays, to memorialize (albeit mostly subconsciously) the gifts from the Earth in the form of these mushrooms.

In addition to placing gifts under a Christmas tree, other Christmas decorations also have a historical connection to these mushrooms. Typically the red and white mushrooms were strung on the hearth of the fireplace or on nearby pine trees to dry—today we similarly hang Christmas stockings, ornaments, and tinsel as seasonal decorations.

Amanita Muscaria: The Recap

As you can see, there are many tangible connections between amanita muscaria mushrooms and the Christmas holiday we celebrate today. Keep this theory in mind as you enjoy today's celebrations and let your friends and family know that the origins of flying reindeer, Santa Claus, and even the decorations they hang may in fact be directly inspired by psychedelic mushroom trips, taken long ago by shamans in Siberia!