SOLSTICE, SANTA, SHAMAN & MUSHROOMS!
Seasons Greetings from Ancient Traditions
By Marsha Silvestri
While researching various foods for my 101 Anti-Aging Vegan book, I came across some fascinating info about mushrooms. These life forms are not actually plants, they’re a fungus. One surprising discovery is that their DNA is closer to humans than the plant kingdom. I also found several unexpected facts and lore that connects mushrooms to many ancient practices as well as traditions we celebrate for the holidays and Christmas today.
There are over 10,000 known mushroom species, with countless potential uses in addition to foods and medicines. Only about 4% of fungi species are considered desirable for culinary purposes, and less than 1% are actually toxic enough to cause serious harm. Of the edibles, many have a rich nutritional and medicinal history with several being marketed as superfoods. Mushrooms are the only natural vegan source of Vitamin D. Like human skin, mushrooms produce the vitamin when exposed to the sun.
More than 80 mushroom species glow in the dark. Due to a property known as “bioluminescence” or “Foxfire”, the glow is created by a class of molecules which under certain conditions produce a chemical enzymatic reaction that emits light. Glowing potted mushrooms can be found online - a rare unique gift for that special someone on your holiday list who has everything.
Mushrooms feed off of dead wood and biomass, helping to break down decaying matter, balancing natural ecosystems. But these are not the only things mushrooms consume. Mushroom expert mycologist Paul Stamets claims that fungi can clean up everything from oil spills to pesticides, bacteria, diesel fuel, chemicals, even nuclear meltdowns. Naturally it would help if the sources of the pollution and waste were stopped, but for some of the damage already done, mushrooms can provide viable Earth repair environmental restoration.
Some of the most innovative “green products” on the market today employ the use of mushrooms. Stamets claims that “Mushrooms can save the world” by providing solutions for health, healing, rejuvenation, toxic waste cleanups, plus multi-purpose practical products such as air and water filters, packing and building materials, vegan leather substitutes, and more. Cattle farming and ranching wastes substantial water, land and resources, contributing to global greenhouse gasses, pollution, deforestation and animal cruelty. Mushroom leathers can help the environment by reducing and replacing the need for animal leather.
Toxic Mushrooms: Amanita Phalloides (the Death Cap), is the most deadly species known, responsible for 90% of human mushroom fatalities. Easily mistaken for the edible Puffball and Paddy Straw mushrooms, its toxins cause severe nausea, pain, diarrhea and dehydration within hours of ingestion, leading to irreversible organ failure within days if not treated properly. Store-bought shrooms should be safe, but if you decide to forage on your own, its best to consult an expert, or learn how to properly identify the poison varieties.
Magic Mushrooms: For centuries indigenous cultures have used mushrooms to induce trances and spiritual visions. Psychoactive chemicals in certain species impact the central nervous system, distorting perception of colors, sounds, senses, space or time.
Fly Agaric (Amanita Muscaria), is known as the mushroom that caused Alice in Wonderland’s distortions of space and size. They have a history of shamanic uses, particularly among Siberian and Nordic cultures. These bright-red-capped/ white spotted toadstools, are toxic, usually dried or boiled before consuming to reduce their toxins. Curiously this mushroom may be the source of popular customs and symbols behind the western world’s Christmas celebrations.
Early Christmas Traditions
Have you ever wondered where the tradition of the Christmas Tree came from? Or hanging red balls as tree ornaments, leaving brightly wrapped gifts underneath or placing a star at the top? What do these have to do with the Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Christ? Even the character of an all-knowing Santa for that matter, a white-bearded jolly round fellow dressed red and white with a pointed elfin hat. Why does he reside at the North Pole or travel the whole world at night by air-sleigh with flying dancing reindeer? How does he see or know all the children? Why does he enter homes through the chimney with a brown sack of gifts? And what’s with the stockings hung by the fire filled with treats? All of these folkloric “Christmas” customs can actually be traced to ancient indigenous cultures of the Arctic, Lapland and Northern Siberia. Some are older than Christianity itself. So how did they become part of modern Christmas traditions and what do they mean?
No one knows the actual birth date of Jesus Christ. It was never revealed in the Bible. Many scholars doubt it was in winter, but more likely in spring near Passover in March or April, or around Sukkoth in September. Astrologers sometimes place his birth date in late August when the Sun enters the sign of Virgo, representing the virgin birth. Astrological associations linking the Solstice to various holy days have been celebrated in many cultures worldwide. In ancient European and Druid societies Winter Solstice was a major Pagan feast day. It represents the death and rebirth of the Sun, as it passes through the lowest point of the solar cycle. In the Arctic, when the nights are longest in winter, the Solstice marked the turning point back to longer days or the return of the Sun, a sign of hope and return to life. It is also the first official day of winter, when colder days are still to come. Solstice literally means sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), when the Sun appears to stand still for a few days. The astronomical point when the Sun enters the sign of Capricorn, is ruled by the planet Saturn. Ancient customs surrounding the celebration of Saturn included lights and candles to represent the return to light, giving gifts to children, feasting and celebrations from Pagan festivals such as Saturna and Saturnalia, which honored Saturn, the Roman God of Agriculture.
The earliest recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25, was in 336 A.D. during the the reign of Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor. The Roman Catholic Mass for Jesus Christ took place in the evening after sunset, and before the following dawn. It was commonly held at midnight, given the name Christ-Mass, which later became Christmas. Midnight Christmas mass is still practiced in Christian churches worldwide today.
When Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, Pope Julius I and the Church chose Dec 25th for Christ-Mass to coincide with the popular feast days of Saturnalia. Saturnalia was a hedonistic festival where people feasted, got drunk, and social order was turned upside down, more like a Mardi Gras than a religious holy day. The motive for choosing that date was to give the feast days a Christian association and to weaken Pagan influences. The holiday also coincided with Juvenilia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. These traditions transitioned through various cultures and lands, taking on local influences and lore that had nothing to do with the Biblical account of Christ’s birth.
The Norse tribes of Scandinavia celebrated Yule from the Winter Solstice December 21 through January, when the tradition of the Yule Log burning through the darkest days and longest nights would take about 12 days to burn. It was a time of feasting and celebrations that became associated in Christianity with the 12 Days of Christmas. In Pre-Christian Scandinavia the Yule or Juul celebration represented the rebirth of the Sun. It was the turning point in nature when the days started growing longer, and people celebrated the return to light. Candles, fires and lights were a part of the festivities.
Enter Saint Nick
European traditions link Saint Nicholas, a 4th century Greek bishop of Myra (now Modern Turkey) to the Christmas celebrations. The patron saint of children, St. Nicholas was known for his generosity, credited for the tradition of giving gifts to children for the holiday. According to one story, he secretly dropped some gold coins down the chimney of a poor man to pay the dowry of a daughter to be married. The coins fell into stockings that were hung by the fire to dry. This is the traditional explanation for the chimney and stockings in the Father Christmas story. The feast day of Saint Nicholas fell on December 6. In Holland he was called Sint Nikolaas, or called by the nickname Sinterklaas, which later morphed into Santa Claus. With multiple overlapping feast days during this time of year, and political goals of the church to spread Christianity and wipe out Paganism, local holidays became merged with Christian feasts and observances such as Advent, Epiphany and other regional celebrations in between.
Through the Middle Ages the traditional Christmas holiday didn’t receive mainstream popularity until the 19th century. The celebration was even outlawed in some places. In 1822 a poem by an Episcopal minister, Clement Clarke Moore “A visit from St. Nicholas” ('Twas the Night Before Christmas) described Santa as a jolly round man dressed like an elf with a white beard, who brings gifts to children, entering their homes at night via the chimney, traveling to and from the North Pole by sleigh, pulled by eight flying reindeer. The poem contained several curious similarities to Nordic shamanistic traditions that indicate possible mystical symbolic cross-influences.
During Victorian England the Dickens story “A Christmas Carol”, helped to popularize aspects of the holiday around the sentiment of generosity. Sending Christmas cards was a popular British and German tradition. Meanwhile across the ocean in the New World, Father Christmas, aka Kris Kringle (meaning Christkind) was making his own impression on the settlers of New York City, as the patron saint of the city, a figure who later would come to represent an icon of capitalistic and commercialized spending. The modern American vision of Santa we know today was actually created by artist Thomas Nast. His earlier renditions done in the 1800s for the magazine Harper’s Weekly, were first inspired by the red vestments of Saint Nicholas from early icon paintings. The bishop's tall hat resembles the pointed cap of the modern Santa. Later versions created for an early 20th century Coca Cola ad campaign were influenced by nordic shaman elders with their long white beards, and traditional Lapland costumes of fur-trimmed robes and tall elf-like crowns (that also resemble the pointed cap and fur trimmed suit of the modern Santa).
Was “Santa” Originally a Mushroom?
Illustrations on antique Christmas cards often depict symbols of red and white Fly Agaric mushrooms. The red-capped white spotted mushrooms are known to grow beneath conifer pine trees around the roots, having a symbiotic relationship with the trees. This association could be symbolic for the tradition of placing “gifts” beneath Christmas trees. Pine trees in Nordic mythology symbolized the “World Tree” which points towards Heaven, the North Pole and North Star. The North Pole was considered the top of the world, associated with the mythical spiritual Upper World. The legend of Santa residing at the North Pole comes from this Nordic lore. Perhaps Santa’s little “helpers” and elves were actually these mushrooms? Or is there more to the Santa story, perhaps some history that’s been hidden or shrouded in secrecy?
The legend of Santa Claus as evolved in North America has long been associated with the folklore of Saint Nicholas as told through European and Dutch settlers coming to the New World, which was centered around the Greek Christian Saint. But a different narrative has emerged in recent years, by professor / scholar Carl Ruck from Boston University, mycologist Lawrence Millman, and other academic researchers from Harvard, who have raised many questions and present alternative associations. They reveal how the Sami indigenous shamans of Lapland used hallucinogenic mushrooms to perform healing rituals. According to their theory, during a mushroom-induced trance, the shaman would be perceived as actually looking like the mushroom, a round figure with a red cap, who travels through the sky in a sleigh drawn by flying reindeer. The mushroom's common name “Fly Agaric” is due to the euphoric flying sensation it causes.
In pagan times Arctic shamans consumed Fly Agaric mushrooms as a mood elevating energy stimulant for rituals, ceremonies, spiritual trances and “getting high”. The mushroom produced a sensation of warmth and intoxication that helped both tribesmen and shaman better endure the long, harsh cold winters. They may have also provided needed vitamin D, which would have been lacking during the darkest time of year. In the Arctic Circle on December 21 the Sun never rose. The day is without any direct sunlight, with 24 hours of darkness.
Shamans considered the mushroom a divine sacred plant, calling it the “Holy Mushroom”. “Holy” can be translated as the word “Santa” in some languages. As mushrooms reproduce by spores, the lack of any seeds, caused an association of the mushroom with the Divine Miraculous Virgin Birth.
The shamanic journey can represent the symbolic journey of Santa through the spirit world as he flies to many lands spreading gifts and good cheer. Psychoactive mushrooms create enhanced awareness, expanded visionary and psychic abilities which could be symbolic of Santa’s supernatural abilities, his all-knowing awareness of all children, if they’ve been good, bad, or deserving of gifts.. Historically the shaman visiting homes would offer healing gifts and be given food in return (like leaving cookies for Santa).
Nordic tribes were reindeer herders using their domesticated herds for transportation, food, tools made from antlers, and skins for clothing and housing materials. Arctic reindeer also loved mushrooms, especially the Amanita Muscaria. They would forage through the snow to find them and would leap about with drunken behavior from the toxic reaction as if flying or dancing. Natives consuming the mushrooms might have hallucinated that the deer were actually flying as the source of the legend of Santa’s flying reindeer. Through language and oral traditions these symbolic stories may have morphed into literal translations. Reindeer also drank their own urine, which distilled the mushroom’s toxins, but retained the psychoactive properties, a practice the shaman also adopted, eating the yellow snow or drinking their own urine after consuming the mushrooms.
Oh Christmas Tree
Where did the traditions of decorating Christmas trees come from? These mushrooms being less harmful when dried, shamans would hang them on pine branches to dry. They were sometimes strung on strings and hung as garlands on the trees. The red and white spotted mushrooms actually look like red Christmas balls or ornaments. At the season end they’d gather the mushrooms into large cloth sacks. Indoors they placed them inside socks hung by a fire to continue the drying process.
Northern tribes lived in yurts or round teepee-like huts with a ground level door and a chimney smoke hole in the top. When deep winter snowdrifts blocked the main entrance, the chimney could serve as an alternate entry. During the Winter Solstice shamans visited local homes passing out mushrooms as sacred gifts, delivered in brown cloth sacks they passed through the chimney. That sounds like a more feasible explanation than the dropping of gold coins down a chimney from the St. Nicholas story. That the coins just happened to land in the stockings sounds a bit far-fetched, where stockings filled with magic mushrooms hung by the fire to dry, is much easier to believe.
Do all these traditions sound familiar? With so many coincidental elements, it would make sense that there may be more than myth shrouded in history to the mushroom aspect of the Santa story coming from Nordic Christmas traditions. Is it possible that church-ruled powers tried to silence the true origins of these traditions for religious reasons, to discourage or wipe out indigenous practices and the liberating mind-expanding use of psychoactive plants? It wouldn't be the first time history was rewritten to serve a religious or political agenda.
Death & Rebirth
Whether or not these associations are the true origins of the Santa story, the point of this post is that whatever religious or spiritual holiday traditions you celebrate, this is a sacred time of year – a time for deep reflection, looking inward on our life over the past year – the death of one cycle, while preparing for a New Year – the birth of a new cycle.
Winter Solstice is a time to bid farewell to the old and welcome the new, preparing and setting the energy for the New Year. It’s also a time of healing and socializing with community, loved ones, celebrating joy and peace among each other, helping others in need, and sharing good will.
Rituals to celebrate the energy of renewal can include letting go of what is no longer relevant, be it things, people, goals, thoughts, bad habits, clearing away clutter, cleaning your home… Donate things no longer needed to others who can better use them. After the clutter is cleared and the house cleaned, smudging with sage, sweetgrass, pine needles or mistletoe helps create an energetic cleansing. Herbs like sage and rosemary dispel negative energy. Ringing bells is another ritual for energy space clearing that has made its way into Christmas traditions. If you have some brass bells, chimes, gongs or singing bowls, give them a ring as you sage your home.
Take some time to meditate on what you wish to create and manifest in the year to come. Set clear intentions. What goals, plans or experiences do you wish to bring to fruition? Write a list of all your achievements from the past year. What did you do that you planned or intended last year? Congratulate yourself for any accomplishments big or small. What didn’t work out as planned or didn’t you finish? Are these still important? Do you want to keep them on your list or let them go? Letting go of things, tasks, or goals that no longer serve who you are today or your current true values and needs can be very liberating, freeing up your time, energy and focus for what is most important now.
And be kind to yourself. If you need an extra hour of sleep, a daytime nap, or more alone time, give yourself those gifts when you can. For animals winter is a time for hibernation. For humans it can similarly be a time for slowing down, rest, going to bed earlier, to honor the natural cycles of time and seasons.
Despite the cold weather, try to get out and spend some time in nature. Breathing fresh air, escaping the dry stale air of most winter homes is refreshing, invigorating and energizing. With shorter hours of sunlight many people become depressed in winter from SAD (seasonal affective disorder). Exposing yourself to even 20 minutes of natural sunlight each day can make a positive impact on your moods as well as your health. Too much artificial light from florescent and LED sources can create vision and hormonal imbalances. We need natural full spectrum sunlight for the health of the eyes, the hormones melatonin and serotonin, circadian rhythm balance, as well as Vitamin D. If you can’t get any natural sun, a light therapy lamp or box can be a helpful solution to SAD.
This time of year our bodies are usually more vulnerable to colds, flus and illness from many causes. The stress of the holidays, excess sugar or alcohol, overeating, eating the wrong foods, staying out late partying, a lack of fresh air and outdoor activity can all wreak havoc on the immune system. Self care and eating in balance with the season are all vital to stay healthy.
In my new 101 Powerful Anti-Aging for Vegans & Vegetarians book I included a section on eating in season, about which foods to avoid and what is best to eat in winter to maintain balance with nature. To get a free download (still available for a limited time) go to: ms.purelifeplanet.com/vegan101-pdf - at checkout enter the discount code: VEGANLIFE101
In closing, my prayers go out to all for a Blessed Winter Solstice – or whatever Holiday or Holy-Days you choose to celebrate this time of year – I wish you all the best and Happy Celebrations. May 2020 bring you peace, good health, prosperity, love, joy and success in all your goals and dreams…
By Marsha Silvestri © December 2019