This idea of a fat bearded man in a red and white suit bounding down chimneys to deliver toys and goodies all over the world in one night is deeply embedded within our cultural mythology. The enmeshing of this tradition with consumerism and capitalism is about as close we get to a culture based religion in America. At Christmas time, every shopping mall in the country provides a man sitting on a throne-like chair, dressed up as Santa so parents can bring their children to tell him what they’d like him to bring them on his big night. But, as many know, this version of Kris Kringle has developed over time to become the hybridized, multicultural representation of gift-giving and holiday cheer that it is today.
However, there is a different story of Christmas, aside from capitalistic ideals, the cultic pseudo-religious rituals, and the myth of a magical man who can bring each good little girl and boy exactly what they wish for. There’s actually a little known historical picture of Santa that few would probably teach their children, but explains a great deal about human nature and our shamanic past. This story also involves a bit of magic, mystery, and myth-making itself.
The symbol of a red and white gift associated with an evergreen tree was found among indigenous peoples who lived amidst reindeer near the North Pole, in Siberia. This shamanic culture, called the Evenks or Ewenki, were a group of hunter gatherers who lived closely with nature and reindeer in particular, which they relied on for their survival. They also held a certain mushroom, called the Aminita Muscaria or Fly Agaric (pictured above), as sacred. According to the transformational culture magazine, Reality Sandwich, the Evenks had such an affinity for these fungi that,
“When out collecting the mushrooms, people would pick a bunch of them under the evergreen trees and lay them out along the branches while continuing to pick the mushrooms beneath other trees. The result was something that looked very reminiscent of a modern Christmas tree: evergreen trees whose branches are dotted with bright red, roundish “decorations” – in this case the sacred mushrooms. At the end of the session, the shaman or harvester would go around to each of their mushroom stashes and put them all in one large sack… a large sack?!! Remind you of anything?! Not only this, as the story of the tradition goes, the shaman would then, carrying this large sack, visit the homes of his or her people and deliver the mushrooms to them. They would then continue the drying process by hanging them in a sock, near the fire!”
In the Western world, modern times and industrialization have brought on significant changes throughout all societies worldwide, and shifting economies, religious views, and political forces have caused alterations in our customs and in family life. As people became more focused on the nuclear family, any communal ways of living or connections to our ancient indigenous and shamanic ancestors became almost completely lost. The Saint Nicholas Center website describes the situation as it relates to Christmas as such:
“The 19th century was a time of cultural transition. New York writers, and others, wanted to domesticate the Christmas holiday. After Puritans and other Calvinists had eliminated Christmas as a holy season, popular celebrations became riotous, featuring drunken men and public disorder. Christmas of old was not the images we imagine of families gathered cozily around hearth and tree exchanging pretty gifts and singing carols while smiling benevolently at children. Rather, it was characterized by raucous, drunken mobs roaming streets, damaging property, threatening and frightening the upper classes. The holiday season, coming after harvest when work was eased and more leisure possible, was a time when workers and servants took the upper hand, demanding largess and more.”
With the Industrial Revolution came more economic inequality, and eventually produced a larger middle class. For these bourgeoisie, the idea of Santa Claus seems to have become a way to both stay connected to historical religious tradition, and also identify with the upper classes. Perhaps this return to a more mystical-magical perception of the holiday season was born of a growing knowledge of both indigenous cultures and customs that have come about through globalization and greater access to information and education all throughout society.
Although the historical image of Santa is steeped in tales of kindness and gift-giving, related especially to Saint Nicholas, the modern concept of Father Christmas that has developed in the United States in particular now represents little more than unrelenting selfishness and greed, as industrialization has given way to commercialism and corporatism. But we can choose to accept or reject any or all of those aspects of the holiday season.
Obviously, we all have our own traditions and ways of doing things, but the typical holiday spending sprees, the expectation for compulsory gift giving, and the social pressures to play along and teach children our to believe in Santa Claus are almost completely unavoidable. The feelings involved in participating in such activities can be troubling for some, and even depressing or debilitating for others. But if we embrace these blending traditions as being the result of ever-increasing connections between humans worldwide, and the transformation of consciousness among all people, then we can forgo the materialistic hype and the religious tripe, while remembering the kind and beautiful souls throughout all time who have contributed to the spirit of the season. And just try to think of Santa as a little red and white mushroom…that should at least make you smile!