Originally published on the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust blog here.
The clocks have gone back and autumn is drawing in, the trees turning all shades of gold, red and yellow as the days shorted and the temperatures fall. Fungi rise up from the ground, sending their fruiting bodies into the open to pepper the ground with new shapes and colours. One of our most colourful species, the magnificent Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), is on display at the moment, a common species often found in Silver birch woodland. A great place to see it is woodland with a lot of silver birch in it. Look for clumps of this striking red and white fungus, standing tall beneath the silver white trunks of the birches.
I imagine the Fly agaric is familiar to many of you as it is often the ‘poster boy’ of British fungi. However what might not be so well known is that there is a school of thought that connects the Fly agaric with the creation of the global face of Christmas; Santa Claus!
The origins of Santa are well documented, the first reference in print was in the 1823 poem ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ by Major Henry Livingston Jr (the famous ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’). This poem also contains the first printed reference linking Santa with his ubiquitous reindeer. This imagery was then sent round the world by Coca Cola, when they used Santa in their 1930s Christmas advertising campaign.
Some environmental historians have put together a compelling story that suggests the Fly agaric might have helped influence the creation of the Santa we know and believe in (he is real isn’t he?!) today. Reindeer are found in the colder northern regions of Europe and North America and are known to feed on the Fly agaric fungus. The Sami tribespeople who live in these regions (covering the Arctic – Scandinavia and Russia) herd reindeer and have a tradition of feeding the Fly agaric fungus to their deer. They do this to make use of one of the agaric’s interesting qualities, it is a hallucinogenic! The reindeer’s digestive system metabolises the more poisonous components of the toadstool, leaving its urine with the hallucinogenic and psychotropic elements of the fungus intact. The Sami then drink the urine to experience the fungi’s mind bending qualities!
One of the most common hallucinations that the Sami have is of reindeer flying through the sky. It is said by some that when the first missionaries reached Lapland they heard stories of such reindeer flight from the Sami people, and integrated those tales into the existing Christmas folklore of Western cultures concerning Saint Nicholas, or Santa as he is better known.
They also suggest it might be more than mere coincidence that Santa and the Fly agaric share the same colours; bright red and white. The Fly agaric is believed to have influenced much of the ancient Shamanistic tribe cultures across the Arctic/Siberian region, including the use of its vivid colours in much of the symbolism used by the tribe’s people. If early missionaries took the concept of flying reindeer for Santa, why not also red and white for his robes! There is more to this fascinating tale, and you can read about it in great detail here and here.
Not wanting to be a spoil sport and put an end to this elegant story, but a note of caution must be made. Many historians feel that the link between shamanistic uses of Fly agaric and Santa are unfounded and untrue. Some have examined evidence of Sami culture and found no links to Fly agaric induced hallucinations and flying reindeer. Experts on the subject cannot agree and it seems as though more digging for evidence is needed!
As the jury is out on the truth of this tale, it is up to you to decide what you think to be the likely course of events. I can safely say I know which version I would like to be true, and will forever think of the gaudy Fly agaric when I see the red and white of Santa Claus.