Is the Santa Claus Myth Based on Magic Mushrooms?

magic mushrooms

The story of Santa and his flying reindeer, which we have come to associate with Christmas, may actually have its roots in Siberian shamanism and the consumption of the hallucinogenic mushroom, Amanita muscaria (also known as fly agaric). This is the easily recognisable toadstool mushroom, with its white stem and red cap dotted with white spots. It has been widely established that Amanita muscaria has been used by shamans in Siberia in order to enter into a trance state. In Eastern Siberia, this mushroom is used by both shamans and local people. The shaman would eat the mushroom; then others would drink his urine after. The urine still contained the psychoactive ingredients (such as muscimol), but in a more potent form and with less of the nasty side-effects, such as vomiting, sweating and twitching.

John Rush, an anthropologist, has said that “Santa is a modern counterpart of a shaman, who consumed mind-altering plants and fungi to commune with the spirit world.” According to Rush’s theory, which is supported by other scholars but still highly controversial, says that Siberian shamans visited the locals’ teepee-like homes (called yurts) and gave them a bag of hallucinogenic mushrooms in late December as a present. The mushrooms would need to be dried before consumption (to reduce toxicity and increase potency), with families supposedly hanging them in socks around the fireplace in order to dry. The whole idea of Santa coming down the chimney to deliver gifts supposedly comes from shamans delivering the Amanita muscaria in a sack through the chimney entrance because the main entrance to the dwelling was usually blocked by snow during the winter solstice.

And that’s not the only connection that historians and scholars try to make between the Santa Claus myth and hallucinogenic mushrooms. In his book, Mushrooms and Mankind (2003), James Arthur explains that pine trees (which are used as Christmas trees) grow throughout the Northern Hemisphere (including Siberia) and the fly agaric mushroom can be found growing under them. According to Arthur, this helps to explain the practice of putting up a Christmas tree in the house, with the placement of bright red and white presents underneath (which represent the mushroom).

Reindeer are native to Siberia and have been documented ingesting these hallucinogenic mushrooms, just as humans have been doing. This short clip from the BBC shows how the reindeer actively seek out and consume the Amanita muscaria. It also entertains the idea that the story of Santa on a sleigh with flying reindeer could be influenced by both the shaman’s and the reindeer’s altered state of consciousness. Donald Pfister, a biologist from Harvard University, also suggested that Siberian shamans who ingested fly agaric could have hallucinated that reindeer were flying. If the reindeer themselves were ‘tripping’ and acting erratically, this may have further fuelled that particular hallucination. As Pfister puts it, “Reindeers flying — are they flying, or are your senses telling you they’re flying because you’re hallucinating?”

Carl Ruck, a professor of classics at Boston University, agrees with this idea. In his words, “Amongst the Siberian shamans, you have an animal spirit you can journey with in your vision quest.” Since reindeer are native to Siberia, it is no surprise that they feature in the shaman’s ‘trip’. Ruck goes on to state that the shamans have “a tradition of dressing up like the [mushroom]…they dress up in red suits with white spots.”

Professor Pfister points out ornaments shaped like the mushroom are found in Christmas decorations and ornaments, particularly in Scandinavia and northern Europe. Images of the Amanita mushrooms can also be found in many examples of Christmas greeting cards. That said, although there are connections between magic mushrooms, Siberian shamanism and the Santa Claus myth, both Pfister and Ruck readily admit that there may not be a direct link. After all, correlation does not equal causation. It seems that many of the traditions found in Siberia were projected onto the modern Santa Claus story, which comes from A Visit from St. Nicholas (otherwise known as The Night Before Christmas), an 1823 poem by Clement Clarke Moore. St Nicholas, a medieval saint, was therefore turned into a flying, reindeer-driving deliverer of gifts. The symbol of Santa’s sleigh, James Arthur argues, comes from Norse mythology. Supposedly the Norse god Thor flew in a chariot drawn by two goats – the goats have just been replaced with reindeer.

Ruck makes another connection between mushroom imagery resurfacing in the Santa myth. Rudolf, with his red nose, looks like a mushroom. Ruck says, “It’s amazing that a reindeer with a red-mushroom nose is at the head, leading the others.” Of course, there are critics of the whole Santa-mushroom connection. The historian Stephen Nissenbaum, who writes about the origins of Christmas traditions, sees no association between shamanism, magic mushrooms and Santa. Another historian, Ronald Hutton, said that having studied Siberian shamanism, “you find that shamans didn’t travel by sleigh, didn’t usually deal with reindeer spirits, very rarely took the mushrooms to get trances, didn’t have red-and-white clothes.” Hutton also says that the shamans did not run around delivering gifts of magic mushrooms.

However, Ruck disputes some of these points. He admits that the shamans do not use sleighs, but that this is irrelevant – the flying sleigh is supposed to symbolise the kind of transportation that a ‘trip’ involves. And why does Santa live in the North Pole? Ruck argues it is because that’s where Siberian shamans live. And let’s not forget that Santa Claus is dressed red and white, just like the fly agaric mushroom. Dana Larsen in his article, The Psychedelic Secrets of Santa Claus, writes, “When it was time to go out and harvest the magical mushrooms, the ancient shamans would dress much like Santa, wearing red and white fur-trimmed coats and long black boots.” There is also a theory that Coca-Cola invented the modern-day image of Santa (jolly and in red and white attire) through advertising in the 1930s. However, it is much more likely that Coca-Cola popularised that image – there are much earlier examples of the Santa that we all recognise.

The connections between magic mushrooms, Siberian shamanism and the Santa Claus myth seem strong, but we should be wary about attributing the myth solely to shamans tripping on mushrooms – as always, correlation does not equal causation. The origin of the modern Santa Claus story involves many cultural influences, but Siberian shamanism is probably the most interesting one.


  1. Anonymous
    August 30, 2013 / 3:12 pm

    Very good piece.

  2. Mike Crowley
    October 7, 2013 / 3:30 pm

    A "very good piece"? Really? I don't think so.

    The piece is full of inaccuracies, distortions and downright fabrication. Not that I'm blaming Sam Woolfe for these but he could have provided references so that we could check on, for instance, the story about Siberian shamans giving out Amanita muscaria mushrooms.

    This "fact" was invented by the notorious self-promoting fabulist, James Arthur (real name J. A. Dugovich). I wish we could bring James into the discussion but he hanged himself in a police cell after his third arrest for child molestation. In reality, these mushrooms are incredibly valuable in Siberian society – one mushroom = one reindeer. Only very rich Siberians could afford to give them as gifts. It just doesn't happen. And hanging them in socks around the fireplace?!? Gimme a break. Since when did Siberian herdsmen wear socks? Apart from which, yurts have a central fire on the ground – there's nowhere to hang anything.

    And is there actually a Western *tradition* of Santa having reindeer? The earliest mention of reindeer in connection with Santa is in the poem "The Night Before Christmas". Prior to that, Santa rode a white horse or, in some cases, sat in a cart pulled by a goat.

    Speaking of Christmas, it is only in warm climes such as California (James Arthur's home) that Amanita muscaria are found at this time of year. In Siberia they are found much earlier. By December they are long gone and the land is covered in deep snow. The idea of Siberians having fresh mushrooms in need of drying in that month is absurd.

    Another inaccuracy involves the pine trees. The Christmas tree is a German tradition and, there, it is always a spruce fir – NOT a pine. Only in America are pines used as Christmas trees.

    When "James Arthur" was still with us, I repeatedly pointed out these errors (and many more) to him and chastised him for concocting his "facts." He refused to change a word, however, and would resort to exclaiming petulantly, "But don't you want people to eat these mushrooms?"

    Whether I do or not is irrelevant. The facts come first.

    • Anonymous
      November 10, 2013 / 11:32 am


    • Anonymous
      November 28, 2013 / 4:13 pm

      Ok so James did some despicable things. He ultimately paid the price for it, don't you think? But does that mean that, automatically, anything he said was incorrect? I don't understand that logic. Frankly, I'm not sure why you even brought it up other than to besmirch James Arthur.

      If he was a known pedophile, why were you communicating with him so "repeatedly"?

      But really, in the end, James' words or ideas can be refuted without refuting the idea that Santa has shamanic roots somewhere in his long history.

      If you want to use an ad hominem line of attack, I can understand why you chose James. Why not try a similar attack on Donald Pfister? His reputation is more academically respectable; he was named the Interim Dean of Harvard this summer. He is a biology professor who believes there is merit to the Shamanic Santa idea.

      As for reindeer, the Sami people of Scandinavia regularly use reindeer sleds and amanita muscaria (as well as Psilcybe Semilanceata). They regularly follow the herd of reindeer into West Siberia. The Sami speak about a wildman who comes on the winter solstice and punishes poorly behaved children(Jeffrey Vallance 2002). It is not inconceivable for them to contribute to the amalgam that is Santa Claus, at least from an ethnological perspective.
      As for the price of amanitas, according to Jan Irvin(Pharmacratic Inquisition), the amanitas were bartered in exchange for goods, not given away for free.

      Many indigenous cultures have used reindeer hide to create sock/shoes. In fact I have worn the Sami version of this, as my Norwegian great aunt has a pair. If you saw them, you'd swear they're socks. But they're actually snow-safe. The only problem is they're not made with gore-tex technology, so inevitably they will get wet, either on the outside or inside. The idea, that there wouldn't be any place to hang your shoes, or anything else, above or near the fireplace seems absurd.
      By the way, just placing your sock/shoe on the ground near the fireplace, will have the same effect. I'm sure you don't mean to say "fireplace ground proximity" didn't exist in Siberian times either.

      Secondly, the act of drying it by(above or around) a fireplace results in the decarboxylation of ibotenic acid, which strengthens the brew. You mentioned the rarity of the amanita to the Siberian tribes. Why would they not experiment in ways to strengthen the amanita brew? If they were willing to engage in the consumption of urine, I would find it hard to believe they would try different ways to potentiate amanita as well. Plus, drying allows the amanita to survive for a longer time.

      As for Amanita's in the north, I live above the arctic circle in Norway, and I can attest that you can indeed find Amanita's in November/December. It all depends on the year. Some years, it snows like crazy, other years, the first snowfall doesn't come until AFTER December. I hear your logic on this one, but I have firsthand empirical evidence that this is not always true.

      But let’s assume your right about this. That nowhere on the planet, during any point during our history, has ANYONE EVER plucked an amanita in December. How does that change anything? An ethnologist sees a Siberian or Sami person perform an amanita ritual in October/November, and then reports back to the western world what they saw. What if they simply saved some Amanita for the winter solstice?

      Simply put, Amanita does not need to be plucked on December 24 for the Shamanic Santa idea to have merit.

      As for the pine/spruce fir trees…aren't you making a mountain out of a molehill here? First of all, according to Christian Rätsch's Pagan Christmas, pine "was considered a sacred tree, which can be seen easily in the name heiligfohre( sacred pine wood)". Spruce and Pine are both coniferous trees that have a mycorrihizal relationship with amanita muscaria. Why are we splitting hairs about this?

    • Anonymous
      November 28, 2013 / 4:23 pm

      As for your final claim:

      "When "James Arthur" was still with us, I repeatedly pointed out these errors (and many more) to him and chastised him for concocting his "facts." He refused to change a word, however, and would resort to exclaiming petulantly, "But don't you want people to eat these mushrooms?" "

      Do you really expect us to believe this? You asked Sam Woolfe to back up his Shamanic Santa claims. Fair enough.

      You have attempted to completely invalidate a man’s career by pointing out something horrible he has done, that is no way connected to his scholarship. Then to top it off, you accuse him of being a hoax. If Sam Woolfe is supposed to provide references, then I ask you to do the same regarding James Arthur being a hoax.

      When and where did James say "He refused to change a word, however, and would resort to exclaiming petulantly, "But don't you want people to eat these mushrooms?"

      You say "facts come first". So is it a fact that James said this? If it is, is there proof of this whatsoever? Or are we simply supposed to take your word on this? Talking about Shamanic Santa traditions spanning the course of thousands of years is empirically slippery.

      First hand communication that happened "repeatedly" as you claim is a different matter. One that should be more easily verified empirically since it must have happened in the last couple decades and to you personally.

      So Mike Crowley instead of ad hominem and straw-man fallacies, let’s see these "facts first" before you besmirch the career of another man as a hoax.

    • Anonymous
      February 18, 2014 / 11:35 am

      I agree Mike Crowley – the more i read of magic mushrooms and general mythology, the more my mind turns to thought of Apophenia and Pareidolia.

    • Jennie
      March 25, 2020 / 3:43 pm

      The fungus does like pine and other coniferous trees, also birch trees, but also other deciduous trees.
      “The 16th-century Flemish botanist Carolus Clusius traced the practice of sprinkling it into milk to Frankfurt in Germany”, were these Sharon’s also grow, that a connection to Christmas tree and mushrooms can be made. Aside from being used medicinally, they can be parboiled and detoxified and eaten for food. They are also a symbol of good luck. Though they can grow at different parts of year, fall is a booming time for mushrooms. An early snow might encourage foragers to pick them before thy are ruined. Finally, dry them by a fire of some kind, they would be good to go by Christmas, and maybe they were consumed as a treat, and shared for celebration of Winter solstice or Christmas. Finally, these may be very valuable, now, with folks wanting to buy for recreational all purposes, but they aren’t really rare, and a years ago, they wouldn’t have really had they same “street value” . Go in forrest, pick, and dry. 😉 don’t need to be rich to share.
      I suspect there is some truth to the story. Just don’t take from it that Santa is based solely on tripping on shrooms.

  3. Anonymous
    October 16, 2013 / 8:40 pm

    coca cola created the image on santa, do research.

    • Sam Woolfe
      October 17, 2013 / 12:03 pm

      But they didn't create the myth of Santa Claus, which is much older than Coca Cola advertising.

    • Anonymous
      November 2, 2013 / 9:09 pm

      Coca cola actually changed santa from green to red to suit coke's colour scheme, the modern day image of santa came from much earlier

    • Sam Woolfe
      November 3, 2013 / 9:28 pm

      As it turns out, there are actually images of Santa in red attire from the late 19th Century and early 1900s:

    • librarian562
      February 17, 2017 / 6:54 pm

      There are several images prior to 1896 (when coca cola was founded) that depict Santa in red, even in red with white spots. YOU do the research, love your local librarian.

  4. Celestial Elf
    December 13, 2013 / 11:59 pm

    Great Post, thought you might like my machinima animation
    Flight of the Shamanic Santa

    Blessed Be By Starlight and True Sight ~

  5. Anonymous
    January 11, 2014 / 1:39 am

    Those are not psilocybin mushrooms they're Amanita Muscaria mushrooms which only make you hazy drunkish.

    • Sam Woolfe
      January 11, 2014 / 2:03 am

      I never claimed they were psilocybin mushrooms. Amanita mushrooms have been known to induce psychedelic states – they have a history of use in Siberian shamanism.

  6. Anonymous
    March 3, 2014 / 2:05 am

    sure seems like a lot of Christmas imagery involving mushrooms. If you don't like sam's story then instead of being assholes why don't you come up with another explanation? Those who can, do. Those who cant, teach. Those too stupid to do either become critics.

  7. Michael Schmitz
    July 7, 2016 / 11:53 pm

    NO. It originated by A Austrian named Claus who had a toy store & made Toys carvings for children in the area he lived iun. Then he & his Wife moved to America & opened a store. he still made toys for children. later story's about him, then religion jumped in & it grew. The reason it was December 25th, was Santa Claus birthday. My nationality is Austrian. Mike

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