Superfly Santa

In my Santa Quiz post, I brought up the theory that some hold that Santa is depicted in red and white as a result of a highly successful Coca-Cola ad campaign in the 1930s.  In fact, Coca-Cola takes full credit for the modern-day Santa image.  Coke claims that, prior to their sprucing up of Kris Kringle, he appeared in a number of guises from a green elf to a somber Saint Nicholas, and even a gaunt figure dressed in animal skins.  This claim is hotly disputed.

Nast's Santa

Of course, many of Santa’s attributes come from the American illustrator, Thomas Nast, who drew Santa for Harper’s Weekly between 1863 and 1886.  In Nast’s drawings, the break with Santa’s religious past is clear.  Nast drew Santa as a pear-shaped jolly figure with a flowing, white beard.  His image of the big man was a composite of his former drawings of the drunken Roman god, Bacchus, as well as the corpulent political boss, William Tweed, who ran Manhattan for much of the 19th century.  Nast also admitted that the was inspired by the furs of the Astor family (from where the family originally derived its wealth) when he designed Santa’s fur-trimmed clothing.

However, there is an alternate theory as to why Santa dresses in red and white, and as to why he behaves in a jolly manner.

St. Nick

From The Physics of Christmas by Roger Highfield (©1998, Back Bay Books):

A rival suggestion for the origins of much of Santa’s paraphernalia — his red and white color scheme, those flying reindeer, and so on — is much more fun, less commercial, more scientific, and somehow more appealing than Coca-Cola’s version, because it is so politically incorrect.


Green Santa

Patrick Harding of Sheffield University in England argues that the trapping of the traditional Christmas experience owe a great deal to what is probably the most important mushroom in history: fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), the recreational and ritualistic drug of choice in parts of northern Europe before vodka was imported from the East.


Each December this mycologist dresses up as Santa and drags a sleigh behind him to deliver seasonal lectures on the toadstool.  The garb helps Harding drive home his point, for Santa’s robes without doubt honor the red-and-white-dot color scheme of this potent mind-altering mushroom.




Fly Algaric

In Lapland [Northern Finland, above the Arctic Circle], the village holy man, or shaman, took his mushrooms dried — with good reason.  The shaman knew how to prepare the mushroom, removing the more potent toxins so that it was safe enough to eat.

During a mushroom-induced trance, he would start to twitch and sweat.  His soul was thought to leave the body as an animal and fly to the otherworld to communicate with the spirits.  The spirits would, the shaman hoped, help him to deal with pressing problems, such as an outbreak of sickness in the village.  With luck, after his hallucinatory flight across the skies, he would return bearing the gifts of medical knowledge from the gods.


Modern-day yurt

Santa’s jolly “Ho, ho, ho” is the euphoric laugh of someone who has indulged in the mushroom.  Harding adds that the big man’s fondness for popping down chimneys is an echo of how the shaman would drop into a yurt, an ancient, tent-like dwelling made of birch and reindeer hide.  “The ‘door’ and the chimney of the yurt were the same, and the most significant person coming down the chimney would have been a shaman coming to a sick person.”

Harding uses the shaman’s urine to link reindeer to the myth.  For one thing, reindeer were uncommonly fond of drinking human urine that contained muscimol [the active ingredient in fly agaric]….Such was the intensity of the drug-induced experience that it is hardly surprising that the Christmas legend includes flying reindeer.  Witches soar for related reasons: a witch who wanted to “fly” to a sabbat, or orgiastic ceremony, would anoint a staff with specially prepared oils containing psychoactive matter, probably from toad skins, and then apply it to vaginal membranes.


Highfield goes on to list several mystical flying experiences using fly agaric as the medium for transport, from St. Catherine of Genoa to British mycologist Mordecai Cooke.  Cooke was a friend of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), the author of Alice in Wonderland.  “Almost certainly, this is the source of the episode in Alice where she eats the mushroom, where one side makes her grow very tall and the other very small,” Harding writes.  “This inability to judge size — macropsia — is one of the effects of fly agaric.”


Friends, I will spare you Highfield’s derivation of the British expression “to get pissed” (meaning ‘drunk’).  Let’s just say it involves a communal sharing of fly agaric after the Shaman is through with it.  When your parents told you not to eat yellow snow, there may have been an alternate reason for such warning.

Will you ever look at Santa, reindeer or witches the same way again?

— The Major


Thomas Nast Depiction of Santa at North Pole

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