Was Santa Claus Born Out of Psychedelic Folklore?

Was Santa Claus Born Out of Psychedelic Folklore?

When pondering the prevalence of Santa Claus in western culture, we see kitschy holiday movies, neon-lit figures in front yards, and patterned, white-bearded wrapping paper. Santa has been a widely accepted symbol of Christmas cheer for centuries, but where did the myth begin? 

If you’ve read about the origins of this gift-giving character, you’ve most likely stumbled upon the link to a third century monk named Saint Nicholas, who was known for his charity and kindness. But could the Santa Claus folklore have been born out of something a bit…trippier? 

As historians and scholars investigated the origins more closely, an alternative narrative emerged—giving a (surprisingly legitimate) psychedelic slant to a traditional legend.

The Psychedelic Santa Origin Story

This alternative history begins with the indigenous Sami people, who resided in Lapland—a wintry, forest-filled region in northern Finland. Near the winter solstice, the shamanic leaders of the Sami conducted healing rituals, which featured the Amanita muscaria or “fly agaric” mushroom—a red and white toadstool mushroom commonly depicted in fairy tale imagery. 

The shamans would ingest this highly hallucinogenic mushroom, experience the amanita’s spiritual journey, and share the wisdom and knowledge learned with the rest of the group. 

So, how does this relate to Santa Claus? 

As scholars and mycologists studied the accounts of these rituals, they began to notice some uncanny similarities between the characteristics of these practices, and the modern day Santa Claus legend.

Santa as a Psychedelic Shaman

An indigenous shaman practicing a traditional ritual with amanita muscaria mushrooms.
Copyright: Emanuel Salzman

The similarities begin at the source. To find the fly agaric mushrooms, the Sami would search underneath pine trees, where they were commonly found growing. Some have related this to how red and white presents are now placed underneath pine trees in modern Christmas tradition, where the most “cherished gift” was once found. 

Because the amanita was quite toxic, the shaman could do one of two things before consuming—dry the mushrooms out, which they often did by laying them out on pine trees, or by placing them in socks over a fire (which some have compared to the imagery of stockings over a fireplace).

A black reindeer animation eating red amanita muscaria mushrooms, on a white, hazy background.

Alternatively, because reindeer in this region often sought out and consumed the amanita mushrooms, shamans would, instead, drink the urine of the reindeers, which would be less toxic, but just as psychoactive. The amanita’s experience has been said to induce the feeling of flying, and some compared this to how flying reindeer supposedly take Santa around the world—similarly, the reindeer “taking flight” allowed the shaman to continue their journey.

The legend also states that during their spiritual journey, the shamans would morph into animals, ascending to the North Star in search of knowledge and wisdom to share with their community. Other accounts claim that those who consumed the amanitas would begin to resemble one—which some compare to the mushroom-like shape a round Santa Claus is commonly depicted as, and the red and white outfit he dons.

After the trip was over, the shamans would return home to their traditional yurts. However, due to snow blocking the main entrance, they would often enter their yurt through the hole in the top, which many compare to Santa’s descent through the chimney. 

Instead of physical gifts, the shaman would bring spiritual “gifts” to their community—in the form of the wisdom and knowledge gained from their psychedelic experiences.

How A Trippy Santa Could Change Your Perspective

A painting of a surprised Santa Claus, looking at two amanita muscaria mushrooms
Source: Salon.com


Many writers who explore this topic do so lightheartedly—endorsing that legends (such as Santa Claus) are simply strange amalgamations of a number of historical happenings and tall tales that have grown and transformed over time. 

Others lean into this alternative twist on St. Nick, not just to play psychonauts’ advocate, but to relish in an underlying interpretation—perhaps, ironically enough, one of the core intentions of the holiday season. 

Two drawings of minimalistic Santa Clauses, the left in a white outline holding a mushroom, the right drawn with trippy magenta tracers.

Writer and mycologist Lawrence Miller reflects on these comparisons, stating “The shaman comes as a healer or to give advice…we should think in terms of regarding Christmas not as a capitalistic holiday, but a time to think more spiritually about life.”

What if the shamanistic gift—one of reflection about our deeper selves, and a time to share in understanding of it with those around us—could inspire a renewed holiday outlook? Not one of buying material items, but as a time for spiritual growth?


Deep Dive Resources: 

  1. Santa Is a Psychedelic Mushroom | The New York Times
  2. The Influence of Hallucinogenic Mushrooms on Christmas | Fungi Foundation 
  3. Santa Claus Was A Psychedelic Mushroom | Psychedelic Spotlight

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