Article Written by: Caleb Kouns
Winter is in the December air, and the holiday season is upon us once again! Lights are beginning to festoon the eaves of houses, Douglas Firs are whisking about town lashed to the roofs of cars, pumpkin spice is being added to every drink and treats imaginable, and rookie parcel delivery couriers are earning their stripes during this busiest time of year, known in the industry simply as “peak”. That’s right folks, it’s Christmas time – time to take a day or two away from the office, to slow down a little and connect with ourselves and our community, time to celebrate the completion of another year and another solar cycle.
Christmas, the Santa & Rudolph version that is celebrated in the US today, is actually a relatively new holiday concocted from a variety of cultural traditions, including English, Dutch and German. Now, you may have heard that the iconography of Santa Claus has been around a really long time and is based on the Amanita Muscaria mushroom. To some, the story of Santa and his reindeer coming from the shamanistic traditions of the far east is a little more than a fun urban legend. The story goes that in the region we now call Siberia, shamans would gather Amanita Muscaria and give them as gifts on the winter solstice. Because snow would often block doors, there would be an opening in the roof through which people entered and exit, thus the chimney story. Gifts under the tree is thought to reference the fact that Amanita Muscaria grow under conifers and birch trees throughout the northern hemisphere, and the flying reindeer could have come from reindeer being used as a common spirit guide in ceremonies.
Others argue that Santa Claus was strongly influenced by the Dutch Sinterklaas, who was in turn based on the historical figure of Saint Nicholas, an early Christian bishop legendary for his miraculous deeds and generous acts. All three dress in red, have flowing white beards and give gifts to those most deserving. Of course, it’s just as possible that early shamanistic traditions influenced the legend of St. Nick, which in turn led to our modern version of Santa Claus, enshrined in the Clement Clark Moore’s “A visit from St. Nicholas”, published in the Troy Sentinel in 1822, and further fleshed out in the illustrations of political cartoonist Thomas Nast in the mid-1800’s.
Prior to that, Christmas was a purely religious observance of the birth of Jesus, first celebrated in Rome in the middle of the fourth century. And before there was a Christmas, there was a long history of winter celebrations that stretches back through the history of all the Abrahamic religions, through our collective pagan heritage, all the way back to the indigenous, ancestral, even primordial beginnings of our history. But where did these stories and celebrations of light and dark, death and rebirth first come from?
The entheogen theory of religion suggests that our earliest religious ideations were borne from the ceremonial use of psychedelic plant medicine. Bolstered by evidence of the use of psychotropic substances in ancient rituals throughout the world and history, for anyone who’s had a strong mystical experience on a psychedelic journey it’s not hard to imagine the myths and stories handed down to us over the ages originating in those early altered experiences. It’s hard to imagine a time when humans were so new that they had no stories, and hadn’t been around long enough to build a mythology, but if you try to put yourself in that headspace, and then imagine what a strong mystical experience might make you think or feel, it suddenly seems totally conceivable that a person would come back from that journey with some crazy stories to tell about where we came from and where we’re going.
Likewise, it’s pretty easy to entertain the idea that our Christmas mythology is a distant remembrance of early mystical experiences had by our ancestors. Whether or not that’s actually the case, Santa Claus is definitely a lot more mystical and psychedelic than a Catholic bishop. If you look hard enough, it’s not too difficult to see the mystical and spiritual in the stories we cherish and celebrate. So many hearken back to our ancient, spiritual, mystical past and heritage. So this holiday season, as you exchange gifts and break bread, take time to give yourself the gift of a moment of quiet reflection on who you are in the world, and how amazing it is to be here together on this journey. Take a deep breath, hold it, and as you exhale give thanks – thanks to the earth, to each other, and to our stories that remind us we are all mystical creatures.