In our last article we started exploring the shamanic roots of the Santa Claus legend and how it ties in to the Northern European, Siberian and Arctic circle tribes such as the Sami and Evenki. The Sami, also known as Laplanders, are a nomadic Finnish tribe who just happen to wear brightly colored elf-style clothing and pointy hats when they’re not herding, you guessed it, reindeer, are responsible for a lot of the original Yule celebratory rituals that bled into the Christmas tradition that took place right around the same Solstice period.
To understand the importance of these Yule rites, you have to consider the harsh conditions in Siberia and Arctic Finland. This is the land of the midnight Sun. The (quite literal) dark side of the midnight sun is the end of Autumn, the shortest day of the year is Winter Solstice and around this time the sun nearly disappears almost entirely for that shortest and darkest day of the Solstice that marks the beginning of the Yule celebration.
As we mentioned in the last story, long before the story of the Magi giving gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, the Yule-tide season was known in these cold, dark areas as a time of celebration and gift giving. The gift in question was generally the amanitas muscaria mushroom. The redcap fungus with the distinctive white spots were known as the “fruit” of the evergreens and firs they were often found under. Mystified by the mycelial network forming without any apparent seeds being dropped, this phenomenon was occasionally referred to as a “virgin birth.”
Now we already showed how the traditional Santa legend was heavily shaped by Shamanic tradition, right down to drying the amanitas muscaria mushrooms in a large stocking over the hearth and bringing evergreens indoors to fend off the cold and dark. Imagine now, it’s another cold Finnic or Siberian winter in pre-history. You’re cold and the longest days only last for a few hours of dim, blue light here this close to the Solstice. All of a sudden you see what looks like a giant red cap mushroom heading towards you on a reindeer, chortling in the sheer ecstasy (ex- stasis, meaning to literally come “outside” of one’s self) of shamanic delirium. He hands you a stocking full of fire dried red cap mushrooms in a stocking. Considering the high likelihood of seasonal affective depression being exacerbated by the harsh Arctic condition, the idea of Yuletide gift giving was helpful for getting through the harsh winters.
The “gift” of the amanitas was generally discovered under certain varietals of evergreens (yes, the same sorts of pine and first that many of us still haul into the house at the end of the year) echoing the “Yule log” rite which purportedly staved away the frosty, near perma-darkness of the darkest point in the year in the land of the Midnight Sun.
Prancing and dancing reindeer? Yeah, we got those. In fact there’s a possibility that discovery of the filtration of the amanitas toxins through urine was an important part of the tradition. Reindeer and tribesmen alike would share in a mug of “recycled” amanitas. Which gives a whole new meaning to the old saying about the “yellow snow.”
The Arctic reindeer herding tribes who used amanitas noticed that the reindeers enjoyed chewing the fungal “fruit” of the evergreens after which they got “frisky” and seemed to dance and prance around for a while. This coupled with the fact that amanitas hallucinations often involve delusions of flying and size distortion makes a lot of the rest of the seeming non sequiturs in our Holiday tradition make a little more sense.
So, elf clothing, reindeer, red caps with white puffballs, gift giving, taking trees indoors and stockings full of gifts, eh? Yes, it’s beginning to sound a lot like Christmas, isn’t it? Stay tuned as we continue our exploration into the ethnobotanical roots of the traditional Christmas celebration soon. In our next story we’ll cover more parallels and connections between the pre-Christian pagan Solstice traditions and the more modern holiday traditions that occurred as a result.