The story of Santa Claus, as many of us know, comes from the legendary and chartiable exploits of St. Nicholas. But, where did our modern day depictions of him come from? Certainly St. Nicholas wasn’t dressed in a gaudy red and white outfit, flying high in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Anthropological research shows that Santa’s iconic origins go way back, even further than Coca-Cola’s rosy cheeked fat man of the early 20th Century. Let’s take a look at some of the primary attributes . . .
Many of the traditions of Christmas come from Yule and other non-Christian Solstice celebrations of that time of year. Many researchers have found some of the iconic imagery we attribute to Santa can be traced to the shamanic practices of the indigenous Kamchadale and Koryak peoples of Siberia. Siberia is, of course, darn close to the North Pole and is likely where we get the legends of old St. Nick living up yonder.
These Siberian shamans were (and still are) known for their healing practices, particularly through the use of the psychedelic mushroom amanita muscaria, otherwise known as fly agaric. These mushrooms were most typically found directly at the base of pine trees, which in many ways were gifts to the people the shamans were serving. Although this happened intermittently throughout the year, at least once around the Winter Solstice the shaman of the community would go on a spiritual pilgrimage to seek out amanita muscaria for the year. Their guide was the North Star, until they were led to the right selection of pine trees with ample yield. This is likely one of the reasons we place a star atop a pine during the season. Additionally, in order to prepare the healing and hallucinatory properties of the mushroom effectively, the shaman first needed to dry out the mushrooms. So, after harvesting them one of the ways in which they would dry them was hanging from the lower branches of the pine, like ornaments.
To imbibe amanita muscaria, the shaman needed to filtrate the toxins of the mushroom in order to lessen any negative effects on the shaman and/or patient. One of the traditional ways to do this was to feed the mushrooms to the local reindeer native to the region, and of which most shamans would domesticate just for this purpose. Any effects of amanita muscaria that are toxic to humans do not affect reindeer in that way. Their digestive systems eat away the toxic effects and they just, quite frankly, get high. LIke, flying high up in the sky kind of high. While the reindeer are tripping on the mushrooms, the shaman gathers their urine which has effectively eliminated any of the toxins of the amanita muscaria, but still maintains some of its healing and hallucinogenic properties. So, yes, what I am saying is these shamans and their patients would drink reindeer pee.
STOCKINGS AND CHIMNEY
At times the shaman would distribute the pee tea directly to a patient in the community. Other times, the shaman would just deliver the dried mushroom and other healing herbs to people’s home in the middle of the night. In the Siberian tundra, yurts were the primary domicile for the Kamchadales and Koryaks. At this time of year, walls of snow surrounded the yurt and the families often had no way in or out for days (or weeks) at a time. Except, of course, the smoke hole at the top, of which the shamans had easy access by just walking on the walls of snow and directly up to the opening. Anticipating the shaman’s arrival, the members of the home often hung satchels or socks at the chimney opening so that the shaman could have an easy means of delivering the mushrooms and other healing herbs; or, sometimes the shaman would hang a satchel or stocking themselves. This was another method for the shaman to dry out the mushrooms at home as well, by hanging them in socks over their fire at home.
RED AND WHITE OUTFIT
You know those mushrooms from Super Mario Brothers? The bright red ones with the white dots. Those are amanita muscaria. What makes shamanism unique is that it is an animistic practice, meaning they have a direct relationship with the spirit of whatever healing herb, tool, or animal they are using to serve their community. This is why you will often see shamans dressed as birds or bears, shapeshifting in various things not because they are primitive, but because they are emulating the consciousness of the healing implement. This is why the Kamchadale and Koryak shamans often dressed in bright red outfits and hats, speckled with white spots and cuffs; they were trying to get in touch with the spirit of the amanita muscaria and become one with it. This may be a reason why Santa is often depicted in a bright red outfit with white cuffs and puffs. What is interesting to note as well is if you look up older Christmas cards and marketing material from the late 19th to early 20th Centuries, you can find a lot of amanita muscaria mushrooms attached to other holiday imagery.
So, quite a few years ago I drew an image of Santa Claus honoring his history as a shaman. I called it, of course, Shaman Claus, and bring it back out into the world to not only enrich the holiday season, but also as a reminder that indigenous communities are not a thing of the past. They still exist and their ancient ways affect our culture in more ways than we give them credit for. As the Siberian people teach us this season is not just a time of giving, but also of healing.