Mushrooms are extraordinary. The diverse fungi, with as many as 10,000 species, can cause binary taste reactions (truffles anyone?), improve skin conditions such as acne and rosacea, get you high, kill you, and may be useful in healing patients enduring Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Maybe you’ve even heard that DNA in mushrooms more closely resembles animals than it does plants. (It’s true; we share a common ancestor with fungi and separated away from plants together about 1.1 billion years ago.) Turns out, mushrooms have one more bragging right, as they might be responsible for one of our most celebrated Christmas figures: Santa Claus.
To be fair, there are several notable Santa Claus origin stories; most widely accepted is the story of Saint Nicholas of Myra, a fourth-century Christian saint known for donating gifts. However, since the holidays tend to make us toke up a bit more—parties, stress—we thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the trippier Santa tales.
One theory about the origins of Santa, says that his likeness stems from Siberian and Arctic shamans who crawled into the tops of locals’ homes during the winter solstice. The shaman would leave a bag of Amanita muscaria (fly agaric), one type of “magic mushroom,” as gifts for residents. Another theory—explained by mycologists and several noteworthy academics in an animated video by Matthew Salton from 2017—explains that the Sami people of Lapland considered the Amanita muscaria holy, propelling the shamans to dress as the mushroom in large, red and white outfits. (Although after eating the fly agaric, it’s likely the shaman actually felt he was the mushroom.) Reindeer waiting, the shaman hopped onto his sleigh, bringing, “healing,” and “problem solving,” gifts to folks around town. Often unable to get through front doors because of the deep snow, shamans came through the chimney-like area of homes. In return for their thoughtful gifts, they were given food (probably not cookies, though).
It’s easy to see the parallels here: gift giving, pine trees (Amanita muscaria enjoys growing under the fragrant tree), a man coming down the chimney, the colors red and white, the reindeer. Oh! About those reindeer, it’s likely the reindeer ate fly agaric, too, and one of the most common side effects of the drug is the feeling of flying. So, this year, when uncle Bill insists Trump is innocent, head outside, light one up, and think about those blissed-out reindeer, gleefully soaring Santa through the crisp, winter air.