A Brief History of Winter Festivity

Whilst the below sounds like a ‘stoner theory’, and it really doesn’t help that I first caught wind of this information via the theory of a stoner, it is highly likely to be the truth…

Whilst we might associate ‘stoner theory’ with popular conspiracies about Royals being Reptilians and birds being bots; I can assure you that today’s investigation shall lead us nowhere near these urban myths. Instead, I bring to you a factual history of winter festivity. After all, tis’ the season!

Have you ever wondered why we drag conifer trees into our homes? Why we adorn them with decorations? Why a flying fat-man propelled by airborne reindeers leaves presents under the tree? Well, disclaimer: it’s nothing to do with Coca-Cola and their lobotomising advert. Nor, quite surprisingly, is it to do with St Nicholas; or our annual bash ‘for’ the birth of Christ. The historic basis of our traditions precedes all of these comparatively modern phenomenas, and quite possibly stems from a specific fungi.

The Amanita muscaria, more commonly known as a ‘toadstool’ or ‘fly agaric’, is a mushroom native to the Northern Hemisphere, where it is found growing within nearly every temperate and boreal forest – but more specifically, under the conifer canopies of Scandinavia, Siberia and Europe. Known for its red and white flecked cap the toadstool is the quintessential interpretation of a deadly mushroom, and tends to be largely feared by the populace. However, this fear is, for the most part, rather blown out of proportion.

Amanita muscaria's

You see, the Amanita muscaria is a poisonous mushroom. That’s fact. But deadly and poisonous are very different things. The Amanita muscaria contains two poisonous compounds called muscarine and ibotenic acid, alongside a psychoactive chemical called muscimol. If the mushroom is ingested raw, the muscarine and ibotenic acid will cause serious discomfort making any mind-altering effects courtesy of the muscimol an utter pain to experience. However, even when eaten raw, it is incredibly unlikely to kill you. 

Certain people, a very long time ago, figured out a way to negate the negative effects and enjoy the mushrooms ceremonially for the winter solstice. Their process would have looked a little like this:

The shaman of your tribe, either that of the indigenous Sami in Scandinavia, or the inhabitants of Siberia, would collect the mushrooms under pine trees. Next, a small conifer would be cut down, and along with the looted mushrooms, loaded into a sleigh. The sleigh would be coasted along by reindeers whilst the shaman, dressed in traditional robes of red and white, headed home to prepare the goodies. The tree would be placed indoors, somewhere warm, and then the shaman would hang the Amanitas from the branches, or inside fabric sacks above a fire, to dry.

The sleigh would be coasted along by reindeers whilst the shaman, dressed in traditional robes of red and white, headed home to prepare the goodies.

When Amanita muscarias are dried, the poisonous ibotenic acid converts to psychoactive muscimol and the sickening muscarine is greatly reduced. The shaman would be left with dried, and hugely potent, psychedelic mushrooms. From here they would load a sack full of the Amanitas and head off by sleigh to distribute the treats to their tribe, in preparation for the ceremony. Often, the snow this time of year would be so deep that the entrances of traditional dwellings would get rapidly sealed over. The alternate route into homes? The smoke outlet for the fire. 

A Sami in Norway with a reindeer

Once delivered, the mushrooms would be ingested, and a very merry time would be had by all. A common effect of muscimol is a sensation of flight and weightlessness; so as starry-eyed celebrators settled into their trip, they might have seen the shaman take leave whilst experiencing a sense of flying. Sound familiar?

Once delivered, the mushrooms would be ingested, and a very merry time would be had by all.

The winter solstice falls around the same time as the birth of Christ. When Christianity reached Europe and stamped out shamanic, and otherwise pagan practices, the ceremonial approach to this time of year still held out strong. Then, the story of St. Nicholas dropping a coin down a fireplace for a poor family, where it landed in a girl’s stocking, spun a narrative thread between Christianity and Shamanism; amalgamating the tribal and the Christian traditional into a ceremony  most of us take part in called Christmas. 

Christian references to the Amanita muscaria

A word of caution; whilst this history is fascinating to say the least, that doesn’t mean you should be consuming these mushrooms willy-nilly and getting the whole family high over turkey dinner. After all they are poisonous and can be deadly. Also, the indigenous Sami and Siberian tribes considered this ceremony highly sacred, and tinkering around casually and recreationally in an ancient practice is arguably sacrilege. Maybe even worse so than Coca-Cola trying to steal Christmas with the aforementioned advert.

However, let me lighten it up again: Santa does exist. In some form at least. Not quite as the pot-bellied, pie-munching, biscuit-crunching jolly character of current culture, but actually as a shamanic member of indigenous European people, a possible ancestor to many of us reading this. 

If your kids are sceptical about Santa’s existence this season, maybe tell them this story.

Or maybe don’t. Tell them Coca-Cola killed him.

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