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.
When the shaman went out to gather the mushrooms, he would wear an red outfit with either white trim or white dots, in honor of the mushroom’s colors. And because at that time of year the whole region was usually covered in deep snow, he, like everyone, wore tall boots of reindeer skin that would by then be blackened from exposure. He’d gather the tree-dried fly agarics and some reindeer urine in a large sack, then return home to his yurt (the traditional form of housing for people of this region at that time), where some of the higher-ups of the village would have gathered to join in the solstice ceremony.
But how would he get into a yurt whose door was blocked by several feet of snow? He’d climb up to the roof with his bag of goodies, go to the hole in the center of the roof that acted as a chimney, and slide down the central pole that held the yurt up over the fireplace. Then he’d pass out a few ‘shrooms to each guest, and some might even partake of some of the ones that had been hung over the fire. Clearly, this idea of using the chimney to get in and pass out the magic mushrooms (and other goodies) had sticking power. Interestingly, even as late as Victorian times in England, the traditional symbol of chimney sweeps was a fly agaric mushroom — and many early Christmas cards featured chimney sweeps with fly agarics, though no explanation of why was offered.
Interestingly, in addition to inducing hallucinations, the mushrooms stimulate the muscular system so strongly that those who eat them take on temporarily superhuman strength, in the same way we might be affected by a surge of adrenaline in a life-or-death situation. And the effect is the same for animals. So any reindeer who’d had a tasty mushroom snack or a little yellow snow would become literally high and mighty, prancing around and often jumping so high they looked like they were flying. And at the same time, the high would make humans feel like they were flying, too, and the reindeer were flying through space. So by now you can see where this is going: The legend had it that the shaman and the reindeer would fly to the north star (which sits directly over the north pole) to retrieve the gifts of knowledge, which they would then distribute to the rest of the village.
It seems that these traditions were carried down into Great Britain by way of the ancient druids, whose spiritual practices had taken on elements that had originated much farther north. Then, in the inevitable way that different cultures influence one another due to migration and intermarriage, these stories got mixed with certain Germanic and Nordic myths involving Wotan (the most powerful Germanic god), Odin (his Nordic counterpart) or another great god going on a midnight winter solstice ride, chased by devils, on an eight-legged horse. The exertion of the chase would make flecks of red and white blood and foam fall from the horse’s mouth to the ground, where the next year amanita mushrooms would appear. Apparently over time, this European story of a horse with eight legs, united with the ancient Arctic circle story of reindeer prancing and flying around on the same night, melted together into eight prancing, flying reindeer.
That story then crossed the pond to the New World with the early English settlers, and got an injection of Dutch traditions involving the Turkish St. Nicholas (who came to be called Sinterklaas by small Dutch children) from the Dutch colonialists — and found immortality in its current form in early 20th-century America, with Clement Clark Moore’s famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Before this poem hit the press, different immigrant groups around the U.S. each had their own different versions of the Santa Claus legend. Then in the 1930s, Coca Cola’s ad campaign gave Santa his sizable girth and sent him back around the world. And so in that spirit, a merry Christmas to all who celebrate it!