Flying reindeer and hallucinations in Lapland

Shaman you: Our idea of Santa might be based on psychoactive fungi, say researchers.

Do we need to know where our myths come from? As Christmas Day approaches, we examine the mysterious origins of that much-beloved, white-bearded, reindeer-flying, gift-giver: Santa Claus.

In the frosty, northern Finnish territory of Lapland, where northern lights sprinkle rainbow shadows across reindeer-filled woods, the shamans of the local Sami people eat hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Though the red and white fungi are often toxic, the hallucinations turn the shaman into a mushroom, large and colourful, dotted here and there with spots of white.

The reindeer, too, graze on the mushrooms and turn into beasts who can fly. A big red man and flying reindeer in Lapland? Sound familiar?

This is the latest theory about the origins of the Santa myth just published on the Aeon magazine website by two researchers, Carl Ruck, a classicist at Boston University, and Lawrence Millman, a writer and mycologist.

Though this theory seems to tick a lot of boxes, there are of course many other versions — many with a long history.

The idea of a Christmas gift-giver has long been linked to the Christian Saint Nicholas of Myra, who lived in Turkey in the third century and was famous for giving young women money to save them from prostitution.

Nicholas, the patron saint of children, is still worshipped in many countries and the tradition of putting gifts in shoes or stockings has endured.

That said, the saint was never depicted as looking very much like Santa or being able to fly. Those attributes seem to come from the white-bearded, flying-horse-riding pre-Christian Norse god, Odin.

There is also mention of a Father Christmas in England as early as the 15th century.

A number of other European tales — such as young Christkind, who brings gifts, or the malevolent Krampus, who whips children into being nice — evoke early iterations of Santa Claus.

But it is not until the 19th century, in the USA, that all these stories really come together into the genial, beady-eyed character we all know and love today.

The writer Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem The Night Before Christmas mentions Saint Nick as “chubby and plum”, with eight reindeer leading his sleigh.

Thomas Nast’s illustrations depict him dressed in red and white, weighed down by children’s toys.

In the 1930s, Coca-Cola perfected the image of Santa Claus that has stuck ever since.

Good to know? Or might it be better not to know?

Ho Ho Ho

Only by knowing the origins of a story can we judge its real value. Many myths are harmful — such as the Victorian myth that being chilly gives you a cold. Many deaths could have been avoided by allowing people more fresh air.

On the other hand, knowing the background of a story can often, at best, be irrelevant and, at worst, destroy the pleasure. In order to enjoy the contemporary version, nobody needs to know that Little Red Riding Hood started as a vampire myth.

You Decide

  1. Which part of the Father Christmas origin story makes most sense to you and why?
  2. Does learning about the origin of a myth make it more interesting for you?

Activities

  1. Come up with your own myth, based on a famous or important figure from today. It could be a politician, a sportsperson or a musician. Get creative!
  2. Imagine that you had to modernise Santa Claus in order to make him more acceptable to your children. What would you update or change about the story?

Some People Say...

“SANTA! Oh my God! Santa, here?! I know him! I know him!”

Buddy, played by the actor Will Ferrell, in the Christmas movie Elf (2003)

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The name Santa Claus comes from the Dutch “Sinterklass”, which in turn is a derivative of Saint Niklaus. Puritans and communists alike have attempted and failed to ban or repurpose Christmas gift-giving. Coca-Cola did not invent Father Christmas. To give all the children all over the world their presents, Santa’s sleigh would have to travel at over five million miles per hour.
What do we not know?
Why the North Pole, Lapland and reindeer have become a key part of the modern story. Why so many early versions of the winter gift-giver had an evil counterpart, someone to punish those who hadn’t made it onto the good list.

Word Watch

Northern lights
Natural phenomena caused by solar wind which illuminates the night’s sky with flowing waves of colour in certain parts of the world.
Shamans
Mystic leaders for tribal people, responsible for spiritual and physical health, they give out medicine and wisdom.
Hallucinogenic
Substance or drug that can make people see things that are not there.
Mycologist
Scientist who studies mushrooms.
Norse
Ancient religion of Northern Europe, followed by the Vikings. The days of the week are named after Norse gods.
Malevolent
Having or showing a wish to do evil to others.
Iterations
Repetitions of a process.
Genial
Friendly and cheerful.

Subjects

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