This is the first of my seasonal posts relating to the Christmas / Yule / Solstice period.
In three weeks' time thousands of children across the world will be waiting for Father Christmas or Santa Claus to pop down their chimney with a large sack of presents for them. Santa is said to have originated from St Nicholas, a 4th century saint who left gifts for the poor out of kindness and charity. But to find his definitive origins, we must go much further back than that.
Santa famously wears red and white, has flying reindeer and enters houses via the chimney. These strange quirks offer clues as to his true roots, in a spiritual shamanic culture thousands of years old.
The red and white-spotted mushroom, Fly Agaric or Amanita muscaria, has been used since ancient times to induce shamanic experiences, chemicals in the mushroom having psychoactive properties. Many traditional cultures have their particular sacred plant which allows them access to the spirit worlds, and Fly Agaric fills this role in Northern and Central Europe. It is always the mushroom which fairies are depicted with in art – for this very reason.
It grows only under spruce and pine trees: evergreens associated with the rebirth of life after winter and the trees we adorn our houses with at Christmas. And our favourite Christmas hero always wears the colours of this mushroom.
The forests of Northern Europe where Fly Agaric is most commonly found, for example Lapland where Santa lives, are also the habitat of reindeer herds. You see the link there? The reindeer, herded by the people who revere the properties of the mushroom, also eat the mushrooms, so presumably experience the same spirit-flight as their human herdspeople. Hence the flying reindeer.
And regarding the chimney: houses in the North, where heavy snowfalls can all but bury them, often have an opening in the roof to allow access in winter. But this is not the whole story. In Europe, the chimney is believed in superstition to be the point of access for all supernatural entities. If some being was successfully warded off, it would invariably escape by hurtling up the chimney. Often charms or amulets were buried under the hearth to prevent access. Witch bottles – bottles filled with thorns, urine and nails – were commonly placed under hearthstones in the Middle Ages as a means of protection.
Every story is a celebration of an older story. Remember that this festive season.