Fly Agaric

In the “old world”, the psychoactive fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) has been closely associated with northern European and Asiatic shamans and their rituals. Researchers have documented its use or presumed use by numerous cultures throughout Europe and Asia. In Siberia, its use predates the crossing of the Bering Straits into North America.

Amanita muscaria.
Fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) shown here from "button" stage through full maturity. Photo credit: Bugwood Forestry Images.

During the Pleistocene, the use of fly agaric entered Alaska, spread out across North America, and eventually south into Mesoamerica. However, the use of the fly agaric mushroom fell by the wayside in the “new world” due to the availability of liberty cap mushrooms (Psilocybe spp.). Liberty caps became the preferred psychoactive fungi as they were more easily tolerated and produced more intense experiences.

Fly-Agaric’s Influence on Modern Midwinter and Christmas Celebrations

Santa Clause going down a chimney with a bag of toys.

Why does Santa Claus wear a red coat and pants trimmed with white fur and black boots? Why does Santa come down the chimney and into the house to deliver his gifts? Why do reindeer pull Santa’s sleigh? Why does Santa carry his gifts in a sack? Why does Santa have such rosy cheeks?

There is a saying that behind every myth lies a wee bit of truth. The answer to these questions may be found in pre-Christian rituals practiced in northern Europe at the time of the winter solstice. The collection, preparation, and use of fly agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria) were central to many northern European and Asian peoples’ winter solstice celebrations and ceremonies.

In the days leading up to the winter solstice, the fly agaric mushroom appears under trees, mostly firs and spruces. The fly agaric mushroom’s cap is dark red to reddish-orange with creamy-white small patches dotting the cap in an irregular pattern.

St. Nick and his sleigh.

Santa Clause and his reindeer.

Fly agaric children's holiday card.

Vintage holiday cards.

In central Asia, shamans wore special garments to collect the fly agaric mushrooms. Their coats and pants were red with the collar and cuffs trimmed with white fur and topped off with black boots. The shaman collected the fly agaric mushrooms in a special sack. After collecting the mushrooms, the shaman would return to his village and enter the yurt (a portable tent dwelling) through the smoke hole on the roof; does this sound familiar?

During the ceremonial ritual, the shaman would consume and share the sacred mushrooms with the participants. The smoke hole was a gateway or portal into the spiritual world where the people would experience many visions. Among the Sami (Laplander) peoples, the hallucinations associated with ingestion of fly agaric gave the sensation of flying in a “spiritual sleigh” pulled by reindeer or horses (i.e., Santa in his sleigh journeying out into the night to give gifts).

Watch this short video from the BBC wildlife show “Weird Nature” to learn more about the reindeer appetite for intoxicating fungi, and perhaps discover a little more about the origins of Santa's flying companions!

A side effect from eating fly agaric mushrooms was a rosy, red flush to the cheeks and face. Common winter rituals included drying and stringing fly agaric mushrooms near the hearth. To this day, many people all over the world still decorate the family hearth and Christmas tree with strings of popcorn, cranberries, and mushroom ornaments. It is a reminder that many winter solstice traditions have long-forgotten histories brought forward into modern secular festivities, including the Christmas holiday.

Christmas card displaying the hanging of Amanita muscaria on a door.
Christmas card displaying the hanging of Amanita muscaria on a door.

Amanita muscaria christmas ornaments
Amanita muscaria Christmas ornaments.