Let’s take a trip to the snow-covered fields of Lapland and Siberia, where the legend of Santa Claus may have originated. Hundreds of years ago the inhabitants of these barren lands tried to domesticate reindeer. But herding these animals was not a simple task, at least not until the herders found a most unusual ally in the form of a little red and white mushroom.
Reindeer, it seems, just loved Amanita muscaria, or Fly Agaric, as it is better known. They could be led around by the nose, as it were, just by sprinkling pieces of the mushroom in front of them. Why the animals were so fond of these fungi was a question that must have occurred to many. To find the answer, all they had to do was taste the mushroom. A blissful euphoria quickly permeated their body and vivid visions, perhaps even of sugarplums, danced before their eyes. Heavenly sounds resonated in their ears. Unless they overindulged. Then there was dead silence.
Amanita muscaria contains the natural hallucinogens muscamol and ibotenic acid, along with the potent toxin muscarine. Amanita is not the “magic mushroom” that people crawl on their knees to find in the forests of the northwest or grow illegally in basements. Those are “psilocybe” mushrooms which contain the hallucinogen psilocybin. This too can cause problems but is not nearly as toxic as muscarine. Fly Agaric is indeed dangerous stuff to mess with. Early Laplanders and Siberians probably took their chances with the fungus to while away the long, dark, dreary nights. This practice no longer occurs, as the “happiness mushroom” has been replaced by television, which in most cases provides a less toxic form of entertainment.
Amanita ingestion was never widespread because the fungi were relatively rare. It was usually reserved for special occasions, like Christmas. The well-to-do would indulge and often emerge from the celebration to relieve themselves in the snow. This had the effect of attracting reindeer who then proceeded to vigorously lap up the melted snow. Impoverished natives noted this reindeer behavior and jumped on an easy way to brighten up their lives. They gathered the yellow tinged snow, melted it and partook of the unusual beverage. Obviously, some of the mushrooms active ingredients had been eliminated in the urine.
The powerful hallucinogenic properties of Amanita muscaria led to its use by shamans in quasi-religious ceremonies. Shamans were a combination of healer, spiritual leader and psychologist, all rolled into one. Often, they would consume the hallucinogenic mushroom to enter a trance-like state of heightened awareness that appeared to be more conducive to physical and spiritual healing. Ceremonies were heralded by a stick placed upright through the smoke hole of the shaman’s hut, a hole through which the spirit of the shaman supposedly exited and entered. It was also common for the shaman to offer samples of Fly Agaric to his flock, samples which were carried in a leather sack. According to some accounts, the association between these rituals and the mushroom was so strong that shamans decorated their fur clothing with red and white, the colors of the mushroom.
So there you have it. A cheerful man, dressed in red and white fur, bearing a sack of presents. Add to this the imagery of the smoke hole and the hallucinating reindeer and you’ve got yourself a jolly old Santa and his “flying” entourage.