Most people think of Santa Claus and the cheery red and white we decorate with at Christmas as little more than lighthearted fun and pretty colors. But the real story behind that Christmas look that takes over the Western world at this time of year is a bit… shall we say, darker. Or at least way, way more tripped-out. Read on to find out about the psychedelic and mystical roots of the Santa Claus myth and the traditional Christmas decorating scheme!
When we think of Christmas in the United States, we invariably think of Santa Claus — a man in a red suit and pointy hat with white furry trim and tall black boots, and his accessories, a bag of goodies in a sleigh pulled through the sky by a team of eight flying reindeer. And it’s a clear case of the clothes making the man, for a Santa in any other outfit would most definitely not still be Santa. (Does a fat, bearded, white-haired guy in cargo shorts and a Metallica t-shirt make you think of Christmas?)
But when you think about it, it’s a pretty special outfit, no? Santa’s pretty much the only one who wears anything like it — a baggy suit with fur trim isn’t exactly stylish these days, and it wasn’t when Santa made his first appearance, either. His last known precursor, Father Christmas, wore a long red robe, sometimes with trim and sometimes without, like a cardinal — reflecting the link drawn between him and the historic Saint Nicholas, a Turkish cardinal in the 14th century who was known for his kindness to children. But the pants? And the hat? And the boots? They’re nowhere to be found on him.
Popular legend has it that Santa himself, not to mention his outfit, was designed by Coca Cola, making his first appearance in their early-20th century ads and defining him for the ages by sheer force of commercial might. There’s a grain of truth in this: His generous shape and rosy cheeks came at the whimsy of Haddon Sundblom, the illustrator of so many of Coke’s well-loved ads from that period. Before Sundblom’s illustrations, Santa was commonly depicted as more of a gnome-like little man (editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast drew some of the best-known early dedications of him), often skinny and a little scary — but even then, wearing the same clothes he wears now. So the question is, where did that outfit come from? Where did Santa get such a unique sense of sartorial élan?
The answer, according to anthropological research from recent decades, lies way further back than even Coke can be found. The roots of Santa’s style, and his bag of goodies, sleigh, reindeer, bizarre midnight flight, distinctive chimney-based means of entry into the home, and even the way we decorate our houses at Christmas, seem to lead all the way back to the ancestral traditions of a number of indigenous arctic circle dwellers — the Kamchadales and the Koryaks of Siberia, specifically. (So it’s true — Santa really does come from the North Pole!)
And like so many other fantastical tales, it all originated with some really intense ‘shrooms. On the night of the winter solstice, a Koryak shaman would gather several hallucinogenic mushrooms called amanita muscaria, or fly agaric in English, and them to launch himself into a spiritual journey to the tree of life (a large pine), which lived by the North Star and held the answer to all the village’s problems from the previous year.
Fly agaric is the red mushroom with white spots that we see in fairy tale illustrations, old Disney movies, and (if you’re old enough to remember) Super Mario Brothers video games and all the Smurfs cartoons. They are seriously toxic, but they become less lethal when dried out. Conveniently, they grow most commonly under pine trees (because their spores travel exclusively on pine seeds), so the shaman would often hang them on lower branches of the pine they were growing under to dry out before taking them back to the village. As an alternative, he would put them in a sock and hang them over his fire to dry. Is this starting to sound familiar?
Another way to remove the fatal toxins from the ‘shrooms was to feed them to reindeer, who would only get high from them — and then pee, with their digestive systems having filtered out most of the toxins, making their urine safe for humans to drink and get a safer high that way. Reindeer happen to love fly agarics and eat them whenever they can, so a good supply of magic pee was usually ready and waiting all winter. In fact, the reindeer like fly agarics so much that they would eat any snow where a human who had drank ‘shroom-laced urine had relieved himself, and thus the circle would continue.