In Holland, children are taught that Santa Claus-and his African slave-come from Madrid on a ship that docks in Rotterdam. In this respect (and perhaps only in this respect), I'm glad I wasn't raised in Holland. As a kid, I loved to lie awake the night before Christmas, imagining Santa and his reindeer flying to Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania from the North Pole, with something special just for me. To imagine him coming up to Holland on a slow ship from Spain just doesn't have the same magical quality.
When I discovered that the whole Santa story was a hoax, I remember feeling proud that the adults had let me in on their conspiracy (which I now had to keep from my little sister), but disappointed as well. Years later, when I began to study the differences in the way people in different cultures construct and perceive what they consider to be reality, I was reminded of this embittered pride I'd felt as a child. The entire trajectory of emotional and intellectual growth in the Western mind seems to be a movement away from mystery, while indigenous people tend to see themselves moving ever closer to realms of mystery as they age.
A typical American Indian adolescent, for example, would be introduced to adulthood in a ceremony involving solitude, introspection, attention to dreams and visions, altered states of consciousness, and perhaps the use of sacred plants. We tend to educate our children in precisely the opposite direction, toward being "well-adjusted" and focused on the practical realities and responsibilities of adulthood. "Stop dreaming," we tell them, "Prepare to work." While our lives seem to be flowing ever further away from the magical realities that Santa Claus represents, our ancestors' lives likely flowed in the opposite direction. In indigenous societies, it is the old who have the most intimate knowledge of the mysteries of life, not the children. Since it is the old who most immediately face death, there must be a not-insignificant measure of comfort in having gained a sense of intimacy with other, soon to be occupied realms.
In any case, who is this Santa character, and where did he really come from? In most traditions, Santa has the following characteristics:
- He comes from the North Pole;
- He dresses in red and white;
- He has a long, white beard;
- He somehow knows if you've been good or bad;
- He enters the house through the chimney;
- He puts the gifts under the Christmas tree (a pine) and/or in stockings hung by the fireplace;
- And, perhaps most spectacularly, he rides a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer.
This all seems rather innocent and arbitrary - unless you know something about people like the Sami, Koryak and other reindeer-herding people who live in the far north of Europe and Siberia. Clearly, the Christmas tradition has roots in many different places and times: Christianity, pagan winter solstice celebrations, old Germanic mythologies, etc. But these aspects of Santa mythology seem to come directly from these reindeer-based cultures.
The key to understanding Santa is Amanita muscaria - the well-known red and white mushroom with a long history of shamanic use from Western Europe to Siberia. I am convinced that Santa is essentially a shaman that has quietly yet forcefully entered into the consciousness of Western culture, like a mushroom nudging up through parking lot asphalt.
- He comes from the North Pole. The Sami and others live at the northernmost point of Europe.
- He dresses in red and white. Just look at the photo of the mushrooms.
- He has a long, white beard. Of course he does. He's a wise, old shaman.
- He knows if you've been good or bad. Supernatural powers. Sure, he's a shaman.
- He enters the house through the chimney. In mid-winter, the entrance to a Sami dwelling is through the roof, as the walls are buried in snow.
- He puts the gifts under a pine tree or hangs them by the fireplace. Amanita muscaria tends to grow under pine trees, due to the acidification of the soil, and they are traditionally dried by stringing them up near the fire.
- And the flying reindeer?
This is my favorite. Indigenous Sami life is centered on these animals. They use reindeer for clothing, shelter, transportation, and so on. But the reindeer have another use as well. It seems that the animals are very fond of Amanita muscaria, and a reindeer that has been eating these mushrooms becomes a very special animal indeed. Consider this account from a traveler in the far north: "Wild reindeer that have eaten some of them (mushrooms) are often found so stupefied that they can be tied with ropes and taken away alive; their meat then intoxicates everyone who eats it..." (Wasson, my emphasis). That's right: the meat of a reindeer that had been eating mushrooms is psychoactive.
But that's not all. Amanita muscaria is unusual in that its strongest psychoactive molecules pass through the body unmetabolized or are excreted as highly psychoactive metabolites. What this means is that the urine of an animal (a reindeer, for example) that has been eating these mushrooms can be as psychoactive as the mushrooms themselves. An animal whose meat and urine both provoke psychedelic states is clearly a great way to fly. Certainly more interesting than a slow boat from Madrid....