‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring—except mushroom Santa tripping down the chimney with his flying-high reindeer.
The holiday season is associated with a range of symbols and traditions worldwide, like the Western Christian ceremonial tradition of dragging a literal tree into your home (or dusting off the fake one after a year in storage).
But what if the traditions many people associate with Christmastime, like jolly Santa Claus and his band of flying reindeer, are hallucinogenic holdovers from shamanic traditions of pre-Christian Europe? Some scholars speculate that there’s more in common than you might think.1
Although the idea sounds a little ho-ho-hokey, the similarities between Santa Claus and mushrooms are a jolly good trip. Let’s discuss.
Santa Claus and Mushrooms History
Santa Claus hasn’t always been the guy with a white beard and jolly red cheeks. He’s most likely based on Saint Nicholas of Bari, a Turkish bishop born in the late third century. 2
Over time, the legends and lore of Saint Nicholas grew. By the twelfth century, he was a popular figure in countries across Europe who was widely celebrated on December 6. Like the Santa Claus we know today, Saint Nicholas was described as leaving gifts in stockings and shoes, coming into homes through windows or chimneys, and sometimes flying or riding on a donkey.3
In the 1500s, a religious reform movement called the Protestant Reformation fractured Catholic Europe. Saint Nicholas was replaced—with Jesus Christ. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that writers and artists refashioned Saint Nicholas into the jolly Santa Claus we know today.4
For example, in 1809, Washington Irving’s book “Knickerbocker’s History of New York” first portrayed Saint Nicholas soaring over rooftops in a flying wagon to deliver presents to good children. In 1880, political cartoonist Thomas Nast created the grandfatherly face of Santa that is so familiar today.
So, although Saint Nicholas is over a thousand years old, Santa Claus is a relatively modern interpretation. Where does mushroom Santa come in?
A closer look at Amanita muscaria
Amanita muscaria is also known as the fly agaric or fly amanita mushroom. A. muscaria doesn’t contain psilocybin or psilocin, the hallucinogenic molecules in psychoactive mushrooms from the Psilocybe genus.
Instead, A. muscaria’s psychoactive properties come from ibotenic acid and muscimol.5 Evidence suggests that this mushroom has been used for thousands of years, as seen in cave paintings and petroglyphs.
For example, petroglyphs found in Central Asia and Russia dating back to 1500–1000 BCE show anthropomorphic figures with mushroom-like heads and round objects hanging from their hips. These round objects may be medicine bags, which Siberian shamans used to carry A. muscaria mushrooms.6 7
In terms of Christmas and mushrooms, one theory is that our modern image of Santa is a blend of northern European A. muscaria traditions, coupled with early Christian beliefs.4 While there isn’t a direct connection between these traditions and psychedelic Santa, there are plenty of trippy coincidences.
Santa Claus and Shamans
The shamans Eastern Siberian civilizations have a history of using A. muscaria as an inebriant and hallucinogen. Religious practices in Eurasia involved Siberian shamans entering an altered state of consciousness to connect with spirits, as well as drinking the urine of a person who had consumed A. muscaria in order to get a second-hand high.9 10
Some scholars believe that contemporary Christmas traditions are derived from Siberian practices with A. muscaria,7 which might explain why people hang socks from their mantels and put decorations on pine trees.
In the book “The Psychedelic Gospels,” authors Jerry B. Brown, PhD, and Julie M. Brown, MA, point out these mushroom-inspired traditions.1 Siberian shamans would wear ceremonial red and white garb while gathering the sacred mushrooms, hang the fungi to dry on pine tree branches, and then bring the dried mushrooms to clan members. Not unlike Santa Claus delivering gifts, except these gifts are way cooler.
The Flying Reindeer and Magical Mushrooms
Santa Claus and his team of flying reindeer are an iconic image, but if you follow the Santa mushroom shaman theory, there are coincidences here, too.
The hallucinogenic compounds in A. muscaria mushroom are still active in urine, which means people who ingest A. muscaria mushrooms relieve themselves of psychoactive pee. As it turns out, this psychoactive urine is a big deal for humans and reindeer.
Reindeer have been documented to seek out mushrooms, particularly A. muscaria. Reindeer will also seek out the urine of other reindeer and humans who have eaten A. muscaria because Rudolph can smell those hallucinogenic compounds.4 And, like people, reindeer get high.
In a 2018 paper titled “Amanita muscaria (fly agaric): from a shamanistic hallucinogen to the search for acetylcholine,” the authors write, “The local reindeer would often follow the drunken individual around and if he relieved himself in the snow, the reindeer would eat it and become similarly intoxicated. Reindeers in this state can easily be roped and killed.” 9
How did they get the power of flight? Donald Pfister, a biologist at Harvard University, told NBC News that Siberian tribespeople who ingested fly agaric may have hallucinated into thinking that reindeer were flying.11
Someone has to help Saint Nicholas get all those gifts to good boys and girls. Why not reindeer? Are they paid in A. muscaria?
Gifts Under the Christmas Tree Meaning
Mushroom lore plays a role in presents under the tree, too. A. muscaria mushrooms form symbiotic relationships with many trees, including birch and pine. Author James Arthur speculated that stashing gifts in this way is an homage to the way A. muscaria grows under certain trees.12
But—not to be a Grinch here—the mushroom connection to Christmas is coincidental at best.
Saint Nicholas wasn’t associated with gift-giving until the Middle Ages. French nuns honored the saint by secretly leaving gifts at the houses of poor children on December 5, the eve of Saint Nicholas Day. Over time, the practice spread throughout Western and Central Europe and found its way into contemporary Santa Claus mythos.4
You might have noticed a theme here, but much of the Santa Claus and mushroom connections are speculations. While A. muscaria has maintained a symbolic presence throughout Europe, and reindeer absolutely love a good mushroom snack, there isn’t extensive support for the idea that Santa Claus is a symbol of Siberian shamans tripping on A. muscaria.
Ronald Hutton, a history professor at the University of Bristol, told NPR, “If you look at the evidence of Siberian shamanism, which I’ve done, you find that shamans didn’t travel by sleigh, didn’t usually deal with reindeer spirits, very rarely took the mushrooms to get trances, didn’t have red and white clothes.” 13
Frequently Asked Questions
Which psychedelic is related to Christmas?
The Amanita muscaria mushroom is associated with the Christmas season in parts of Europe. Also known as fly agaric or fly amanita, A. muscaria is psychoactive thanks to two compounds: muscimol and ibotenic acid.
What is the source of Santa’s magic?
Some might say that Santa’s magic comes from Christmas spirit and cookies left by the fire. Others say that Santa’s magic comes from a good dose of A. muscaria mushrooms. Who are we to decide?
So, is it possible that echoes of Siberian mushroom shaman practices were passed along over time like a trippy game of telephone, evolving to feature the Santa Claus figure we know today? Much of the folklore we know today has been passed down for generations, and with that time, stories evolve, lose some details, and borrow some from other cultures. Either way, we wish you a very psychedelic holiday season.
- Brown Ph.D. JB, Brown M.A. JM. The Psychedelic Gospels: The Secret History of Hallucinogens in Christianity. Illustrated. Park Street Press; 2016:288.
- The History of How St. Nicholas Became Santa Claus. Accessed November 22, 2022. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/131219-santa-claus-origin-history-christmas-facts-st-nicholas
- Bowler G. Santa Claus: A Biography. McClelland & Stewart; 2005:288.
- Marley G. Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares: The Love, Lore, and Mystique of Mushrooms. 1st ed. Chelsea Green Publishing; 2010:288.
- Winkelman MJ. Amanita muscaria: Fly Agaric history, mythology and pharmacology. JPS. 2022;6(1):1-4. doi:10.1556/2054.2022.00216
- Samorini G. The oldest archeological data evidencing the relationship of Homo sapiens with psychoactive plants: A worldwide overview. Journal of Psychedelic Studies. Published online March 29, 2019:1-18. doi:10.1556/2054.2019.008
- Winkelman M. Introduction: Evidence for entheogen use in prehistory and world religions. Journal of Psychedelic Studies. 2019;3(2):43-62. doi:10.1556/2054.2019.024
- Dikov NN. Mysteries in the Rocks of Ancient Chukotka: Petroglyphs of Pegtymel. U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service, Shared Beringian Heritage Program; 1999.
- Lee MR, Dukan E, Milne I. Amanita muscaria (fly agaric): from a shamanistic hallucinogen to the search for acetylcholine. J R Coll Physicians Edinb. 2018;48(1):85-91. doi:10.4997/JRCPE.2018.119
- Michelot D, Melendez-Howell LM. Amanita muscaria: chemistry, biology, toxicology, and ethnomycology. Mycol Res. 2003;107(Pt 2):131-146. doi:10.1017/s0953756203007305
- Magic Mushrooms May Explain Santa & His “Flying” Reindeer. Accessed November 29, 2022. https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna50262168
- Arthur J. Mushrooms and Mankind: The Impact of Mushrooms on Human Consciousness and Religion. The Book Tree; 2003:104.
- Did ’Shrooms Send Santa And His Reindeer Flying??: NPR. Accessed November 29, 2022. https://www.npr.org/2010/12/24/132260025/did-shrooms-send-santa-and-his-reindeer-flying