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#45 Le Père Noël est psychédélique

21 décembre 2021

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In this special bonus episode, Ronan takes a deep dive into a Christmas tradition of red and white and the theory that Santa’s origin story is actually psychedelic. We explore the idea that Father Christmas – and other holiday symbols like flying reindeer, ornaments, and elves – could be traced back to shamans of long ago who brought healing and warmth to an otherwise cold and dark winter solstice. So get ready for a magical trip with Ronan to the North Pole to find out who Santa Clause is and what he’s really all about.


[00:00:00] Ronan: Season’s greetings everyone and welcome to Field Tripping. With the winter holidays soon approaching, we are happy to present to you, our dear listeners, this festive bonus episode. Today, we are going to discuss a fascinating theory that our dear friend Santa Claus, as known as Saint Nicholas, as known as Kris Kringle just might have been inspired by, you guessed it, psychedelics. Before you scoff in holiday merriment, ask yourself, what do you know about the big bellied, bearded, and red nosed Santa that we know and love? Was he created by Coca-Cola in the 1930s, or perhaps in the 1820s from the poem, a Visit From Saint Nicholas. And if you think any of those tales are true, did you ever stop to wonder where did the writers of these tales get their image of Santa from? Think about it. The Santa we all know, he is eager to reward the good [00:01:00] boys and girls with gifts left under the Christmas tree as he hops up and down chimneys all while miraculously flying around to visit every household on Earth? All in one night. Who also rides in a sleigh pulled by eight flying reindeer. Wait, flying reindeer? I’m no expert. Wait, I am, but no less, if you told me that story about flying reindeer about anybody else, I’d probably tell you, you might be tripping. So does it come as much of a surprise that Santa Claus and some of surrounding Christmas traditions may in fact have originated from a magic mushroom? That Santa is in fact psychedelic? Let’s consider the evidence. This is a story of a giant elf. Red flag. With flying reindeer. Oh, well come on, that one’s easy. But even down to why Santa comes down the chimney, stockings above the fireplace, ornaments on the Christmas tree, even Santa’s red suit itself could be traced back to shamans of long ago, their beloved reindeer and one highly sacred mushroom, which brought [00:02:00] healing and warmth to an otherwise bleak midwinter solstice. I’ve personally been fascinated with this theory for many years. So being able to spread this fun flavor of holiday cheer to spice up your season brings me and less amounts of Yuletide joy. 

Okay, where do we start? Oh yes, with the mushroom. There is a mushroom called amanita muscaria, a toadstool species also known as fly agaric or fly amanita, which is native to the boreal regions of the northern hemisphere. You’d probably recognize it if you saw it. It’s the iconic red and white speckled mushroom seen in Super Mario and Alice in Wonderland. It’s probably the most recognizable mushroom on the planet with a psychoactive and poisonous side. It definitely explains why eating a mushroom gives both Mario and Alice such unique powers. 

The amanita muscaria is usually found near or underneath evergreen pines, like birch and conifer. In fact, they have a mycorrhizal relationship with the roots of pine trees specifically, meaning a mutually symbiotic relationship between [00:03:00] fungus and plant. They evolved over the span of millions of years with each other’s help. For example, in some instances the plant will give carbohydrates to the fungus while the fungus gives the plant water and minerals in return. These exchanges all happen in their root systems below the soil called the mycelium network. 

It’s important to note that despite having a psychoactive punch, this mushroom is not the psilocybin mushrooms that many people have come to know and love. The main psychoactive constituents of amanita muscaria are the neurotoxins ibotenic acid and muscimol. The effects of amanita muscaria include being a depressant, sedative hypnotic, psychedelic, dissociative, and deliriant. But it’s also reported to cause stimulation, synesthesia, macropsia, meaning objects appearing much larger than they are in real life- again, Mario and Alice come to mind, and micropsia, where objects appear much smaller.

At this point, you’re probably asking, what does this all have to do with father Christmas? Well, let’s go back in time, at least several [00:04:00] hundred years to Northwestern Siberia and Lapland, the Northern most region of current day Finland. Imagine this area during the winter, looking remarkably similar to the north pole as depicted in pop culture. Think of the classic animated film, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, rolling hills blanketed in snow, pine trees and wintry forests. In northwestern Siberia and Lapland, nomadic reindeer roamed wild. And get this, they ate these toadstool mushrooms, as they actually hunted for them in the wild. It’s not known whether or not they felt or feel to this day, the hallucinatory effects, but there’s no doubt it was their favorite meal.

Following these reindeers were several tribes of indigenous peoples, including the Sami. Over thousands of years, they shared a close symbiotic relationship with the reindeer, not unlike that of the fungi and the plant. Certainly these tribes could not exist without the reindeer herds, as the reindeer provided meat, milk, clothing, transportation, and companionship, while the Sami’s provided protection from predators. 

So reindeer really liked these mushrooms, and the indigenous [00:05:00] tribes in Siberia and Lapland were really reliant on reindeer. How does that get us to Santa? Well, not only did the reindeer seek out the mushrooms, the people also collected them, as they incorporated many species of plants into their medicinal practices. But unlike some other herbal medicines, the muscaria first had to be sufficiently dried out before consumption. When dry the mushroom’s shelf life increased, and it became much more lightweight, which was better suited for the nomadic lifestyle of the north. To dry the mushroom, the indigenous groups would hang them on the evergreen branches, kind of like what you might think of when you think of ornaments hanging from a Christmas tree, maybe? Another way they may have dried the mushrooms was by hanging stockings or bags full of them above or near a fire pit. Sound familiar?

Now there are other histories and theories behind the traditions, of course. That ornaments began in Germany, starting with candles, then popcorn and apples, and later glass ornament production, following an image published in a London newspaper in the 1840’s depicting a young Queen Victoria with a tree adorned with [00:06:00] glass ornaments. There’s also the popular legend of the charitable Saint Nicholas secretly tossing three bags of gold into the house of a poor family at night, and that some of the gold ended up in the stockings or shoe of one of the poor girls who lived there. But take into account, these arctic tribal traditions go back upwards of 3,500 years. Don’t you think it’s possible that they influenced subsequent cultures over time, maybe getting mixed in with other cultures along the way and into these more modern day explanations? For instance, the symbol of the evergreen tree itself goes back as far as ancient Egypt, who decorated with reefs and garlands to celebrate the sun god, Ra. The image of the evergreen has always brought hope into people’s homes as a comforting presence during the short days and long nights of winter. And interestingly, in Germany, the amanita muscaria itself has traditionally been known as a symbol of good luck or Glückspilz, translating into lucky mushroom or lucky devil, and his belief to bring good fortune if spotted in the wild. Being that Germany lies at the root of many of our modern trends and holiday decor, if I didn’t necessarily [00:07:00] mention this. Tyler, our producer asked a family friend who lives in Germany, who confirmed the term, and even the commonly held historical theory that Germanic tribes took the mushrooms before going into battle.

So clearly psychedelic mushrooms may have been the impetus for the modern tree decorating and stocking hanging, but that’s still a far cry from a fat jolly elf, sliding down chimneys and showering kids with gifts. So how do we get to Santa? So it turns out that in these Northern cultures, when the winter solstice rolled around, the local shaman would dress in red and white to honor the holy amanita muscaria and would ride around on a reindeer drawn sleigh and deliver mushrooms to the people, bringing much needed healing and warmth to their bleak midwinter darkness.

In fact, Dr. Patrick Harding states in Unwrapping the Mysteries of Christmas, “Christmas is a time when the shamans are working overtime, because in addition to the usual accidents and illnesses, they’ve got depression to deal with. And I’d like to think, therefore, that the shamans would have needed the old red and white mushroom a little bit more around Christmas.” 

But since the snow would [00:08:00] commonly block each home’s doorway, the shaman would instead, get this, drop a bounty of psychedelic gifts down from the opening and the roof of each family’s hut or yurt. And thus, we have the chimney story. 

So there you have it folks, almost all aspects of the story of Santa Claus can be directly traced back to red and white psychedelic mushrooms growing in the sub-arctic that shamans used to help people navigate the challenges of dark winters. But the story wouldn’t be complete without at least one potty tale. So here we go. Now we all know the saying, don’t eat the yellow snow, which also happens to be a Frank Zappa song, but that doesn’t fully apply here. One of the most effective ways to ingest the amanita muscaria is by drinking the urine of a person or animal that has consumed the mushroom. Apparently psychedelic urine can be recycled of up to five times. So during these festivities, the shaman’s urine would be collected and passed amongst the people, or perhaps someone would spot a ceremony participant urinating behind a tent and, you know, eat the yellow [00:09:00] snow. Uh, reindeer’s new this trick too, and it said that they themselves would come down from the hills and forests in search of the yellow snow. Apparently the term “getting pissed” doesn’t in fact, come from getting drunk on alcohol, but is actually a reference to tripping on psychedelic pee. 

Another commonly reported effect of amanita muscaria is the feeling of flying. And so in those mad festive winter celebrations between animal and human, it seems very possible that the flying reindeer theory may have taken flight. Imagine being high as a kite, celebrating amongst your friends and being pulled on a reindeer drawn sled when suddenly are floating above the trees. Ho-ho-ho indeed. 

Dr. Patrick Harding argues that in the poem, a Visit From Saint Nicholas, you know, the, the twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, et cetera, uh, the author Clement Clark Moore would have been influenced through his experience with immigrants entering the new world, including many from Northern Europe. Dr. Harding explains, “In that [00:10:00] poem for the first time, our Santa Claus doesn’t ride on a horse as he would’ve done in Turkey, but comes in with a sleigh pulled by reindeer. And of course that takes us straight to Northern Europe and the shamans and those peoples who have been looking after the reindeers for thousands of years.”

Prior to our red and white version, Santa was often depicted in a variety of ways, indicating. several influences came into effect here. He was described as elf-like. Santa was even deemed in Moore’s poem, at times tall and gaunt, sometimes wearing a Bishop’s role or a Norse huntsman’s animal skin. The robe look would therefore have been influenced by St. Nicholas of modern day Turkey. The St. Nicholas school of thought goes back to a fourth century Greek Saint known for his generosity and gift giving. But it’s highly unlikely that he donned furs at all, instead wearing robes of darker drab colors, closer to that of a Bishop. Interestingly, upon further examination of Clark’s A Visit From Saint Nicholas, you’ll find that the color red is actually never mentioned, only that St. Nick was dressed in all fur from his head to toe. [00:11:00] The illusion to fur instead of Greek Saint Nicholas’ robe suggests more influence from the Lapland territory school of thought, as the indigenous people would have surely worn furs from head to toe during the winter months. 

Now let’s talk a little bit more about Santa Claus’s history. The next common evolution of Santa we find after Moore’s famous poem seems to have come up from the mind of Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist who ended up creating Santa illustrations for Harper’s Weekly for more than two decades. Around 1881 he created a reversion much closer to the jelly fellow we all know of today. Now, a bit more portly and finally complete with the red suit with white trim. It was also the first time we hear of Santa hailing from the north pole. Then around 1931 illustrator Haddon Sundblom and Coca-Cola created the most current depiction of Santa, which began as an ad campaign to boost sales during its historically slower season for the soft drink. Sundblom continued to create versions of Santa for the next 30 years. I also find it worth noting that Sundblom was of Finnish and Swedish descent. Is [00:12:00] it possible the tales of shaman and reindeer were told amongst his Northern European family and made their way into his subconscious? 

Besides Santa- we’ll leave out Mrs. Claus for now- how can we forget about the other major players of Christmas lore, elves. Since we’re already on the topic, let’s ponder ways in which the elves could play a role in this psychedelic shaman Santa theory. Now, elves frequently come up in psychedelic conversation, most often in reference to DMT the molecule found in ayahuasca and salvanorin A. DMT users widely report a singular shared experience, the visitation of elves, helpers, or guides. Recently we had Matt Johnson on the podcast. In reference to his DMT salvinorin studies, he stated “can neither confirm nor deny the existence of those entities, but it’s quite fascinating that people have those types of experiences.” Stephen Johnson for Big Think wrote that during a study, more than 2,000 DMT users entities while tripping, finding that respondents often consider these strange encounters to be positive and [00:13:00] meaningful, and that the majority of respondents believe that the beings they encountered were not hallucinations. 

Terence McKenna believed in these DMT beings, which he called “machine elves”. He writes of his experience, “and then I found myself in the equivalent of the Pope’s private chapel, and there were insect elf machines proffering strange little tablets with strange writing on them.” Later, McKenna writes, “These self-transforming machine elf creatures are speaking in colored languages, which condensed into a rotating machines that were faberge eggs, but crafted out of luminescent superconducting ceramics and liquid crystal gels.” Whoa.

Of course, indigenous peoples of the Amazon Basin have used ayahuasca, which also contains DMT, in religious ceremonies for centuries. They believed ayahuasca allowed people to speak directly to the gods. 

This begs the question, could the story of Santa’s elves be yet another result of our mushroom friend the amanita muscaria? Perhaps the shaman used to encounter elves whilst on their quest to the spirit [00:14:00] realms. Perhaps these entities provided the very guidance the shaman sought. 

Now, let’s jump back to our current north pole mythology. What are Santas elves famous for? They literally manufacture the toys and gifts that Santa, or [clears throat], a shaman delivers to us. They are even referred to as Santa’s little helpers. Kind of like the shamans helpers from the spirit realm, no? 

Of course, I’m not suggesting that tripping on amanita muscaria AKA fly agaric has the same effects as DMT. Though it should be emphasized that the effects of the mushrooms are said to be notoriously unpredictable. Who knows, maybe while under the influence of a large dose, the shaman would make contact with similar entities as those to ones encountered on DMT. And whether this interaction is in their own psyche or not, these experiences did eventually make their way into an oral history. Look, there is very little evidence here, but I sure like the idea.

To wrap up, I think it’s safe to say that the image of our beloved [00:15:00] Santa Claus as we know him, is the product of multiple influences around the globe or many generations. Even before Christian times people have celebrated the winter solstice for millenia. Germanic peoples had the mid-winter festival, Yule. Romans had Saturnalia, a festival in honor of the God Saturn. Historically many of these celebrations lined up with a year’s end harvest. Whether you celebrate the holidays or not, there always seems to be a certain magic and warmth in the air. We’ve all seen the commercialization of the Christmas season. Many of us may eat and drink in excess. We spend our money, our economies even depend on it. Despite all that I’m optimistic in my belief that we, the general public see well beyond the surface level of things, as we do our year-end reflections. With the new year ahead of us, we reflect on what has passed. Like an existential reset button, next year we get a second chance. So this is a time where we focus on being grateful for what we have and choose to reflect for a moment, taking the time to look as much [00:16:00] inward as we do outward, making time to join each other in dance, song and general merriment. But I think we do this because as history has shown us, it’s a special time of year that’s essentially ingrained in our DNA as humans. 

I’m not surprised that psychedelic plant medicine inevitably found its way into the hearts of our holiday traditions. There are so many questions about our behavior that might be explained through our relationship with these sacred substances. Of course, there’s Terrence McKenna’s stoned ape theory, which posits that our ancestors ingesting psilocybin may have sparked a sudden spike in our evolution and directly led to such human innovations as language and technology. Such a substance would surely have been considered sacred by those using it, considering it’s consciousness-expanding qualities. John Allegro’s book, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross even argues that Christianity itself and perhaps other religions we know today are linked to ancient cults whose practices included the ingestion of visionary plants to perceive the mind of God. Say what you will, but Allegro interprets the fresco [00:17:00] of the Plaincourault Chapel to be an accurate depiction of a mushroom at the center. What kind of mushroom, you might ask? Amanita muscaria of course. Whether you subscribe to these theories or not, you can’t deny that humans have been ingesting these substances for thousands of years, and we can only speculate as to how far and wide they have influenced our cultures and continue to influence our cultures to this day. Perhaps take a moment and join me in thinking about your own relationships to mind opening experiences and how they impacted the way you see the world. Imagine that feeling, drawn out across the generations and how much of a long-term impact that can make on our very relationship with the world around us.

So this holiday season, when you glance at the Christmas tree sparkling with ornaments, or when you’re hanging stockings by the fire or settling in for a long winters nap, remember the Sami people, the shaman, the reindeer of Lapland and the psychedelic mushroom that may have inspired it all. 

I hope you enjoyed this bonus episode of Field Tripping. Research for this episode was gathered from the Uplift Foundation, Unwrapping the [00:18:00] Mysteries of Christmas, Psychedelic Spotlight, Moof Magazine, Big Think. Medium, National Museum of American History, The New York Public Library, and The Guardian. 

As a quick reminder for our regularly scheduled episodes, you can record your how to question for us and we’ll play it on the show. Just go to speakpipe.com/fieldtripping or you can email us with your questions at [email protected]. That’s Kast with a K. 

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Thank you for listening to Field Tripping, a podcast that’s dedicated to exploring psychedelic experiences and their ability to affect our lives, including Christmas. I’m your host, Ronan Levy. Until next time, stay curious, breathe properly. and remember, every day is a Field Trip if you let it be one. Field Tripping is created by Ronan Levy. Our producers are Conrad Page and Harley Roman, and associate producers are Sharon Bhella, [00:19:00] Alec Sherman, Macy Baker, and Tyler Newbold.

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