The real story of Santa Claus?

Most of us remember learning the truth about Father Christmas, and discovering our parents were engaged in an elaborate web of deceit. An old man dressed in red climbing down a chimney? Flying reindeer? The North Pole? How could we believe such stories!

But according to one theory, the myths about Santa Claus aren’t so far from the truth. What’s more, it’s all connected to a mushroom you can find in woodlands right on our doorstep.

The Fly Agaric mushroom

With its bright red colouring and distinctive spots, you’re sure to recognise the Fly Agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria). It’s found in woodlands under beech or pine trees.

Stories of Santa Claus can be traced back to medieval communities in Siberia, near the Arctic Circle. These nomadic people prized the Fly Agaric mushroom for its powerful hallucinogenic properties. The mushrooms would be collected by shamans, who dried and delivered them – perhaps to celebrate the winter solstice (which falls around the same time as Christmas).

So, we have old men, probably with white beards, living near the North Pole and delivering presents at Christmastime. Is this starting to sound familiar?

Stockings and presents under the Christmas tree?

The shamans dried the mushrooms on the branches of the pine trees. Alternatively, they might have collected them in bags or stockings and hung them by the fireplace to dry. Could this be the origin of our traditions of hanging decorations on Christmas trees and presents in stockings?

These tribal peoples lived in yurts, and because, in winter, there were often several feet of snow blocking the entrances, the shamans would climb through a hole in the roof to deliver their special packets of dried mushrooms during the winter solstice – just like Father Christmas coming down the chimney.

Flying reindeer?

But what about the flying reindeer? Well, it seems that reindeer are partial to the Fly Agaric mushrooms, and eat them if they find them. Because of the mushrooms’ hallucinogenic properties, the reindeer exhibit wild and wacky behaviour – jumping or leaping … or flying.

This theory may seem far-fetched, but the image of the Fly Agaric mushroom was used on Christmas cards right up to Victorian and Edwardian times. And early images of Santa Claus (before he was smartened up for modern audiences) shows a distinctly elfish, or shaman-like figure.

So maybe Santa did indeed come from the North Pole, climb through chimneys, hang presents from stockings by the fireplace and have magic, leaping reindeer?

Talking trees?

Whether you believe this theory or not, the truth about the Fly Agaric mushroom is perhaps even stranger. This mushroom is one of many species known as mycorrhizal fungi. The ‘mushroom’ we can see is a tiny part of the organism. Underground, networks of fungal threads stretch for miles in every direction. Scientific research has shown that trees use these fungal networks as a sort of underground internet, sharing nutrients and messages with their neighbours. Donor trees send vital nutrients to assist their weaker neighbours, and help out younger trees while they’re growing. Plants even use the underground fungal networks to warn each other of attack by viruses or pests. Trees tend to do better when planted in groups, and it seems they really do communicate with each other.

Where to find the Fly Agaric:

The Fly Agaric mushroom can be found between late summer to early winter in woodlands amongst birch or pine. A good place to look is Vert Woods Community Woodlands – if you visit you’ll find regular walks and activities to help you discover the woods. However, if you’re lucky enough to find a Fly Agaric mushroom, please don’t touch as they’re highly toxic.

We often complain about the commercialisation of Christmas, but I’m not sure I’d want to go back to the old days of gifting hallucinogenic mushrooms. Chocolates might be better.



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