The Amanita Muscaria or Fly Agaric is not a fungi you would want to eat, at least not unless you are a reindeer or a deer. Around these parts we call them muchomor czerwony, which means red fly agaric, the word ‘mucha’ (pronounced moook) means ‘fly‘, a drug that both gives mystical visions and the experience of flying (hence the eternal image of the happy rubicund flying Santa bringing gifts on his sleigh with reindeer) , as well as making you very ill indeed, unless you know what you are doing. so don’t be silly – please don’t try what I am writing about here as its incredibly dangerous of you don’t know what you are doing.
The deer living all round here (South Poland) absolutely love the stuff. Aside from its poisonous qualities, the Fly Agaric is a potent psychedelic, and to understand the many customs of Christmas one needs to go back to the ancient traditions of pre-christian Northern Europe, and particularly to the Fly Agaric. but first – what is fly agaric? This ‘shroom is a basidiomycete, meaning any of various members of a large group of fungi producing spores on basidia, of the genus Amanita. It is also a muscimol (psychoative compound) mushroom.
Santa’s red and white costume is derived from the mushrooms red and white colours, and reindeer absolutely love fly agaric, hence they too are seen as flying. The Fly Agaric is the iconic toadstool, so often seen with a hookah smoking caterpillar, ala Alice in Wonderland, as well as the “sacred mushroom” used by the ancient tribal peoples of pre-Christian northern Europe. It’s bright colouring remind one of Santa’s garments and of Christmas holiday lights and the use of baubles and shiny decorations around Christmas, as if one was trying in a non hallucinogenic state, to recreate the effects, the magic, if you will, of the Christmas experience.
Basically these ancient peoples, through the use of shamans, used the mushroom to seek higher knowledge, healing, and a deeper understanding of existence. These peoples, centred in Siberia, collected, dried, consumed, and explored the outer reaches of consciousness in rituals that we see still today in such things as flying reindeer, gift giving, Christmas trees (the fly agaric grew for a long time under the pine tree) and of course shiny decorations which again are so reminiscent of the Amanita Muscaria. A shaman would organize and oversee the harvesting of the mushroom. (S)he would ensure it was sufficiently dried to reduce its toxicity , then the drug would be consumed and the visions produced would help the people with whatever problems they brought to the shaman.
These peoples lived in tents with openings on the top called Yurts. One entered a yurt through this hole at the top of the tent, rather reminiscent of Santa entering a home through the chimney. After the trip and the consultation, the shaman would be fed by whatever family (s)he helped, rather like Santa getting milk and cookies or a glass or Guinness and a slice of Christmas Cake after leaving all those gifts in modern day terms.
But the use of these drugs was not simply limited to eating the mushroom. Interestingly enough the consumption of the shaman’s urine or indeed the urine of the reindeer who had eaten the mushroom had substantial hallucinogenic qualities without the toxic side effects, thanks to the liver and kidneys doing their work. One gets rather red faced when on the ‘shrooms, hence those rubicund featured Santa’s and shiny faced laughing people that are depicted in so many movies and postcards and iconic representations of Christmastide. This urine could be consumed up to six times to produce visions and ‘flight’, literally a ‘trip’, as the psychonaut required. It gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘getting pissed at Christmas’. In Lithuania, for instance the ‘shroom is mixed with vodka and served at weddings.
But, back to more Christmas centred thinking – the mushroom itself was seen as a miracle of healing, a sacred gift, a sacrament given by the gods through the sprinkling of the morning dew over the grass underneath the pine trees. This morning dew was the semen of the gods fertilizing the earth and bringing forth this magical flower that solved so many deep spiritual issues.
So as we gather round the Christmas tree, which derives its origin from the world tree that the shaman (Santa) climbs to enter heaven through the ingestion of the sacred mushroom to bring gifts to his tribe, let us spare a thought for the man in red and white, who means so much more than the rather shallow definition and meaning we have for this amazing and deeply spiritual icon that goes way back, thousands upon thousands of years ago.