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Santa Claus and the Reindeer Connection

Article by George Sibley

Shamanism – December 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Santa Claus and the Reindeer Connection

Even for a child, Santa Claus requires a pretty major suspension of disbelief. A fat little man dressed in red and white is okay. Hitting every house in the world in a single night is okay. But flying through the skies in a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer? And then landing on the roof and coming down the chimney? Why not just use the door?

Since the house I grew up in didn’t have a chimney except for a vent pipe that went down into the furnace — something no fat man, however little, could escape from — and Santa Claus seemed to find us anyway, I decided early that variations on all truths were probably possible, and thus relativity came into my life.

But evidence from anthropologists now gives those of us who are old enough to put Santa Claus in perspective some leads on the origins of the little fat man’s unusual modes of transportation and entry. It’s a strange tale that involves real reindeer and magical mushrooms — a tale that General McCaffrey and our drug warriors aren’t going to like.

It’s a story that goes back to prehistoric times in the far north countries of what we now call Europe and Russia, when humans were adapting to inhospitable ice-age environments by becoming parasites on the great herds of split-hooved animals that roamed the sparse land.

Hunters and gatherers, those tribal people at some point made a transition to being herders. Though they still fed off of the herds, they started to assume some responsibility for keeping the herds healthy and numerous.

My own theory holds that this transition probably happened when the climate moderated into the Pleistocene interstadial that still prevails today (although many scientists believe a return of the great ice age is overdue, which becomes a good argument for expediting global warming).

Once things warmed up in Europe, the evidence indicates that there was a significant population explosion among those hardy ice-toughened peoples, and therefore protecting the group’s food supply from other human groups became vital.

Herding huge groups of animals like reindeer, who were accustomed to going wherever they felt like going, presented challenges to those early husbandmen. But they found allies in nature, and one of those allies was a mushroom for which reindeer had a real appetite.

The mushroom was the Amanita muscaria, a mushroom with a bright red cap flecked with white. Also known as the Fly Agaric or Fly Mushroom (because, mixed with milk, it attracted and killed flies), the Fairytale Mushroom and the Happiness Mushroom, Amanita muscaria is a common mushroom in the spruce-fir-aspen and jackpiney North Woods, the taiga that blankets most of the cold subarctic lands around the globe (and the high alpine regions of the Rockies). It is generally advertised as a deadly poisonous mushroom, and will in fact kill if eaten in any quantity.

But taken in small doses, it is also a powerful hallucinogenic mushroom with ibotenic acid and muscimole as its active ingredients.

What the early hunters-becoming-herders found was that they could lead the reindeer herds where they wanted them to go by sprinkling Amanita muscaria ahead of them; the reindeer liked the mushrooms so much that they would go wherever the mushrooms led them.

Whether the mushrooms have a hallucinogenic effect on the reindeer is not known for sure. But it did not take the humans symbiotically bound to the herds long to learn that they could fly with the reindeer by carefully ingesting the mushrooms. They may have done it recreationally — there was no network television for those long Ice Age nights — but they also did it for good, solid, spiritual reasons.

The spiritual leaders of the hunter-herder people in The Reindeer Age (the most recent part of the Old Stone Age) were strong, creative individuals called shamans. Shamans were healers, counselors, psychologists, and managers all rolled into one, and they were probably great manipulators, politicians, and other forms of work-avoiders, too.

The shamans’ work often required them to go from the land of the living-here to the various lands of the not-living-here-anymore, and these journeys were usually powered by Amanita muscaria. The journeys were also symbolized in the shaman’s yurt or hut by a stick reaching up through their equivalent of the chimney, the smokehole in the top of the house. The smokehole was how the spirit of the shaman exited and re-entered the here and now.

In his Primitive Mythology, Joseph Campbell recounts the story of a legendary Siberian shaman who was born into his spiritual dimension in the nest of a winged reindeer in a tree whose “top surely reached heaven.”

It is a long way from the shaman’s hut and the reindeer’s nest to “a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer,/ With a little old driver so lively and quick,/ I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick” — a long way through a lot of pagan midwinter festivals, and a lot of Christian efforts to “capture” and pietize those pagan festivals with their Feasts of Fools and Lords of Misrule.

But somehow those primitive customs have come down through the years with some very pagan elements intact: a spirit garbed in red and white who comes through the smokehole with his flying reindeer to lift us from the mean world to a more giving and interesting world — and most of us don’t even realize what it’s all about.

So get on it, drug warriors! But don’t expect easy results. The one great power of the medieval world couldn’t stomp out this drug cult in a thousand years of trying.

–George Sibley

Information for this piece from Western State College student and mycologist Peder Nelson, Joseph Campbell’s Primitive Mythology and a little book by Shirley Harrison, Who is Father Christmas?