The Real Santa(s)

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There are many layers of myth and meaning attached to Christmas. 

It feels like the winter solstice is the most emotionally and mythically charged period of the year, for many of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, at least.  Its roots run deep in our history, deep in our religious practices, and deep in our psyches.

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How often have you been admonished to remember the “real” meaning of Christmas?

The Roman Church, and its Protestant offshoots, have tried to limit our understanding of Christmas to their religious interpretation as the Feast of the Nativity.

Students of history know that the roots and meaning  of Christmas are millennia older, and run far deeper than the Christian Gospels dictate.

Keep in mind that the church didn’t designate a date to celebrate the birth of Jesus for over 300 years.  The first known references to such a celebration were recorded after 300 CE.

The date chosen, 25 December,  had served as the birthday celebration for Mithra, associated with the “Unconquerable Sun,” in the contemporary and very popular Roman mystery religion known as Mithraism.  This cult had its roots in ancient Persia, and worshiped the Sun as the source of life and all goodness.


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December 25, a few days past the long, dark night of winter solstice, has been celebrated as “birthday of the sun” for as many years as we have histories to remember.  Our celebrations of this winter festival run deep into human history, and also include traditions from parts of Europe north and west of Rome.

Our modern Christmas is such a mix of secular and sacred, “pagan” and “Christian.”  It is confusing to explain often times, and tricky to tease the tangled threads of meaning one from another.

Much of our popular Christmas mythology and iconography originated in Northern Europe and Asia; at a time when shamans guided and healed their tribal people, in the centuries before Christianity spread to these areas.

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This is where we find the origins of our much loved “Santa Claus.”  Tribes living within the Arctic Circle respected their shamans as leaders and guides on many levels.  They healed, counseled, mediated, and taught the mythology and history of the tribe.  These shamans regularly used hallucinogenic mushrooms to facilitate their vision quests.  They also shared these mushrooms, regarded as sacred, with other members of the village.


The hallucinogenic mushrooms, called Aminita Muscaria, have a red cap with white flecks on it, and a white stem.  These special mushrooms grow exclusively under certain trees, like pines, firs, cedar and spruce.    Growing in a special relationship with the roots, they are considered “gifts of the tree.”

Aminita muscaria still grow throughout much of the northern parts of the Northern Hemisphere, and have been spread to many areas of the Southern Hemisphere.  Considered poisonous when eaten fresh, skilled shamans prepare them and give them to their followers under the proper conditions to facilitate a spiritual journey, or trip.  The mushroom gives one the sensation of flying, and helps one find the answers to questions about the nature of life and living.


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When mushroom hunting in autumn, the ancient shamans often wore a coat of reddish or brown fur, and tall black leather boots.  They carried bags to hold the mushrooms.  Once gathered, the mushrooms were dried and aged either by hanging them from the branches of conifer trees, or by stringing them and hanging them over the hearth in the shaman’s home.

In those days, the people envisioned their world as situated in the middle portion of the “World Tree,” or Yggdrasil.  The roots of the tree reached down into the Earth, and its branches reached up into the heavenly realms around the North Star.  The Shaman had the ability to travel up the World Tree into the heavenly realms to confer with the heavenly beings after ingesting the magic sacred mushrooms.  The shaman could also travel down Yggdrasil, to the underworld, on his or her quests.


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In far northern Europe these tribal people often lived in round Yurt like structures.  They had a hole in the middle of the ceiling for smoke to escape.  After the snows fell, the smoke hole became the winter door to the home.  Either a pole or a ladder extended through the hole to the roof.  When the Shaman came to bring gifts of the dried mushrooms, he came in through the smoke hole, entering through the chimney, with the mushrooms in his bag.


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The memory of this shamanic gift giver, visiting the family dressed in fur, entering through the chimney; echoes down to us today in our mythology about Santa Claus.  In fact, modern day shamans of these far northern European tribes continue to wear the traditional red fur coats trimmed in white, today.


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The native deer of far Northern Europe, called reindeer, also love to eat A. muscaria.  The chemical compounds in this special mushroom given vision and enormous physical strength.  Reindeer, eating the mushrooms, run faster and jump higher than normal.  The reindeer love these mushrooms and seek them out.

On a more mundane level, reindeer who have eaten Aminita muscaria pass the psychoactive compounds in their urine, refining them, and making those compounds less toxic.  Drinking the urine of reindeer is another way to ingest the mushrooms.

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The mushroom’s distinctive red and white colors have also come down to us as the colors of Christmas, along with the green of eternal life.  Santa Claus’s iconic costume is nearly always red, trimmed in white, like the mushrooms.


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You may have noticed that many European Christmas decorations feature these beautiful red and white mushrooms. Have you ever wondered why?  Have you noticed them in Walt Disney movies, and in illustrations of elemental nature spirits such as elves and fairies?

Use of hallucinogenic mushrooms is one of those rarely discussed bits of cultural history which has come down to us from our ancestors. Those who have taken them describe how differently the world looks.

Nature “comes alive” in ways we normally can’t perceive.  The energies of nature take form and can communicate, in the guise of these elemental beings.  That is why Christmas stories so often include elves, fairies, and other magical beings, like our Santa Claus who can travel around the entire planet in a single night.

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Many mushroom themed Christmas ornaments come to us from Germany, and Eastern Europe, where these shamanic traditions were strong.  Another element of our modern Santa Claus from that culture is the tradition of the great god Woden, or Odin.

The great father god of the ancient Norse people, Odin, is pictured as an older man with white hair, a flowing white beard, who is missing one eye.  Odin traveled on an eight legged horse during his flights around the world at mid-winter.  Loved as a bringer of both gifts and wisdom during the Yule celebration, his image evolved into “Father Christmas.”


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A more modern strand of our Santa Claus comes to us from the historical Saint Nicholas.  A Christian Bishop in Myra, now Turkey; he was imprisoned by the Romans for his faith, then later released, and died on December 6, 345 CE.  December 6 was celebrated as his feast day throughout much of Europe throughout the middle ages, as it still is today.

St. Nicholas was known for his kindness, generosity, and the help and protection he extended to children in need.  Stories about him spread across Europe.  The Dutch made his feast into a day to give presents to children, who left out their shoes for St. Nicholas, or “Sinterklaas” to fill.


Saint Nicholasm Bishop of Myrna

Saint Nicholasm Bishop of Myra


The example of St. Nicholas inspired the custom of lavishing gifts and attention on children at Christmas time.  The tradition came with Dutch immigrants to the colonies, where St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, or “Santa Claus,” became an icon of giving to children by the early 1800s.

St. Nicholas is pictured as a tall, stately elderly man with long flowing white hair and white beard, dressed in the red and white clothing of a Catholic Bishop.  He carries a golden crooked staff.


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Our popular image of Santa Claus, in the United States, was cemented in the 19th century by a cartoonist and a poet.  Clement Clark Moore published, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in the Troy, New York Sentinel on December 23, 1823.

His vivid images of Saint Nicholas created our popular expectation of a rotund, jolly, red suited “elf” bringing gifts to children by coming down the chimney.  Filling stockings, and traveling in a sleigh drawn by “eight tiny reindeer” are all depicted in the poem we now know as, “The Night Before Christmas.


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Thomas Nast, the well known illustrator and cartoonist, drew the first modern portraits of Santa Claus in the mid 19th century.  His portraits of Santa Claus appeared in Harper’s Weekly from the first Christmas cartoon around 1863 until his last in 1886.


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He published a whole book of drawings about Christmas in 1890 titled, Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings for the Human Race.  Nast is credited for describing Santa’s home as the North Pole in modern literature.


The moons and starts are the garb worn by ancient astronomer priests, or magi.

The moons and stars remind us of the  ancient astronomer priests, or magi.


A generation later, the Coca Cola Company adopted Santa Claus as part of their winter advertising campaign.  Haddon Sundblom’s iconic portraits of Santa Claus first appeared in Coca Cola’s advertising in 1931.  Based on the images in Clement Clark Moore’s poem, Sundblom painted portraits of Santa for the next 33 years.  He used friends, family, and even himself as the models for his paintings.

Santa Claus was adopted by organizations such as The Salvation Army around this same time, who used the image to inspire a nation to give generously to those in need.


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Beginning in 1890, unemployed men were dressed in Santa suits and sent into the city streets to beg for money to finance the Salvation Army’s outreach to the poor.  By dressing their bell ringers as “Santa,” they try to appeal to the better nature of each of us to give generously in the spirit of Christmas.

So there really is no separating the secular from the spiritual in our Christmas traditions.  When gifts are given on Twelfth Night, January 6, it is done in commemoration of “Three Kings Day” when the three kings or Magi of the east, gave their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus.  Gifts are given on January 6 in Spain and Latin America.  The Eastern Orthodox Christian churches celebrate the Feast of the Nativity on January 6.

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In Great Britain gifts are given most often on Boxing Day, December 26.  This custom dates back to the Roman Saturnalia, when gifts were given to servants and children, and the alms boxes were opened and distributed to the poor.  It has been customary for employers to give gift boxes to servants, employees, and tradesmen in appreciation for good service throughout the year.  Today it is a major shopping day in many countries.

Our Christmas is a very rich and diverse holiday, with many layers of meaning. 

When have we seen such agreement among so many different nations, as we see in the matter of celebrating the winter solstice?  Whatever we may call it; we mark it with gifts and gatherings, remembrance, spiritual renewal, and great joy.  It is a festival of light, and keeping it well illuminates the rest of the year with love and good feeling.


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All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013-2014

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For more information:

Hallucinogenic Mushrooms and Santa Claus

Santa and the ‘Shrooms:  The Real Story Behind the “Design” of Christmas

What Hangs On Your Tree? (Forest Garden)

Siberian Shamanism

Who Is Saint Nicholas?

St. Nicholas


The Real Santa in Richmond, VA

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