It’s that time of the year again where we celebrate something that was passed down. There’s a lot of symbology, gifts, unquestioned beliefs… Adults know there is no such thing as Santa but kids embrace the collective idea of a man flying through the sky dropping off gifts. All in all the season brings with it a spirit of giving and family.
But where did all this come from?
Why is it that when we enter this time of the year, the winter solstice rituals begin?
Christmas has always been a holiday celebrated carelessly. For millennia, pagans, Christians, and even Jews have been swept away in the season’s festivities, and very few people ever pause to consider the celebration’s intrinsic meaning, history, or origins.
As you begin to dig below the surface, you find interesting clues that echo roots of this tales in astrology, paganism, and shamanism.
The traditions of our popular culture (Christmas, New Years, etc.) actually find their roots in early Pagan ceremonies that guide us to the closing of a chapter, to be reborn in a new year. The cultural Zeitgeist tells a story that during Christmas time we celebrate the birth of Jesus, however we are actually following astrological patterns, celebrating the balance with seasonal cycles and the precession of the equinox. This is the finite choreography of the stars, and the winter solstice is special occurrence that allows dreams to manifest in the year ahead.
Before we dive into the historic roots, lets review how the current evolution of Christmas came to be.
Why December 25th?
Roman pagans first introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, a week long period of lawlessness celebrated between December 17-25. During this period, Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration. The festival began when Roman authorities chose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule.” Each Roman community selected a victim whom they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week. At the festival’s conclusion, December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent man or woman.
Christians had little success, however, refining the practices of Saturnalia. As Stephen Nissenbaum, professor of history at the University of Massachussetts, Amherst, writes, “In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.” The earliest Christmas holidays were celebrated by drinking, sexual indulgence, singing naked in the streets (a precursor of modern caroling), etc.
Why A Christmas Tree?
It seems a strange thing to do, cutting down a tree from the forest and putting it in your house, deprived of nourishment because the roots have been cut off. If I wanted to look at a tree I would go into the forest where there are thousands of them, growing taller and more majestic with each passing year, testifying to the glory of God’s creation.
The Christmas tree is based on mythology that originated in Babylon. For those who do it in the traditional manner, the Yule Log is thrown onto the fire on Christmas Eve, representing death and destruction. Then on Christmas Day there is the tree, covered in decorations and surrounded with presents, representing new life, the resurrected Nimrod.
The story goes that after Nimrod’s death, his so-called mother-wife, Semiramis, propagated the evil doctrine of the survival of Nimrod as a spirit being. She claimed a full-grown evergreen tree sprang overnight from a dead tree stump, which symbolized the springing forth unto new life of the dead Nimrod. On each anniversary of his birth, she claimed, Nimrod would visit the evergreen tree and leave gifts upon it. December 25th, was the birthday of Nimrod. This story explains the pagan origin of the christmas tree.
Why Gift Giving?
In pre-Christian Rome, the emperors compelled their most despised citizens to bring offerings and gifts during the Saturnalia (in December) and Kalends (in January). Later, this ritual expanded to include gift-giving among the general populace. The Catholic Church gave this custom a Christian flavor by re-rooting it in the supposed gift-giving of Saint Nicholas.
It is well known that the name “Santa Claus” comes to us by way of the Dutch “Sinter Klaas,” which in turn, was a form of Saint Nicholas. Our modern Santa Claus took his name from the Christian Saint Nicholas so we need to begin with a look at this Christian bishop of the fourth century.
1821 brought some new elements with publication of the first lithographed book in America, the Children’s Friend. This “Sante Claus” arrived from the North in a sleigh with a flying reindeer. The anonymous poem and illustrations proved pivotal in shifting imagery away from a saintly bishop. Sante Claus fit a didactic mode, rewarding good behavior and punishing bad, leaving a “long, black birchen rod . . . directs a Parent’s hand to use when virtue’s path his sons refuse.” Gifts were safe toys, “pretty doll . . . peg-top, or a ball; no crackers, cannons, squibs, or rockets to blow their eyes up, or their pockets. No drums to stun their Mother’s ear, nor swords to make their sisters fear; but pretty books to store their mind with knowledge of each various kind.” The sleigh itself even sported a bookshelf for the “pretty books.” The book also notably marked S. Claus’ first appearance on Christmas Eve, rather than December 6th.
The jolly elf image received another big boost in 1823, from a poem by Clement Clarke Moore destined to become immensely popular, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” now better known as “The Night Before Christmas.”
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf. . . .
The Psychedelic Origins of Christmas…Santa as the Shaman
Now lets go back further, to another land and explore a different perspective on this tale.
Is it possible that Santa has roots in Siberian Shamanism?
The history is not so farfetched or even that hidden. You just have to know where to look. And the first place we look is the North Pole; seriously – in ancient Siberia, near the top of the world. The story of Santa and his likely origins begins where he supposedly lives: the frigid North.
In this wintry-wonderland, if you go searching for Santa, you may not find him or his Elvin factory – but you will find groups of indigenous people native to what we know as Siberia. Among these cultures are the northern Tungusic people, known as the Evenki. The Evenki were predominantly hunter-gatherers as well as reindeer herders.
The Evenki were also a shamanic culture. The word “shaman” actually has its roots in the Tungus word saman which means “one who knows or knows the spirits.” Many of the classic shamanic characteristics that would later be reflected in cultures all over the world were originally documented by Russian and European explorers while observing the Tungus and related people’s religious life. This includes the three-world system, the shamanic journey or soul flight, the use of altered states of consciousness, animistic belief in spirit, and so forth.
A significant aspect of the shamanism practiced in this part of the world during that time was linked to Amanita muscaria, also known as the Fly Agaric mushroom. This mushroom is more widely accepted in the modern world as the Alice in Wonderland mushroom. It was held very sacred by these ancient people, and was used by the shaman and others for ceremonial and spiritual purposes. Amanitas – as you can tell by the pictures – range from brightly red and white to golden orange and yellow. They only grow beneath certain types of evergreen trees. They form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the tree, the exchange of which allows them to grow. One of the reported ancient beliefs was that the mushroom was actually the fruit of the tree. Due to the lack of seed, it is also commonly held that Fly Agaric was divine – a kind of virginally birthed sacred plant.
These Shaman wore red clothing, with white accents in homage to the Fly Agaric mushroom. This hallucinogenic mushroom can be found beneath only specific trees, like the fir or pine, which they understood as the Tree of Life. The Mushrooms are the literal “fruit” of those trees, and grow from the roots. The Shaman would collect these fruits, and bring them to the homes of the tribe. They would dry them over the fire, or hang them on the pine tree inside their homes. This specific mushroom played an important role in their end of the year rituals, because astrologically there is something consistent and special happening. The energetic vortex of the winter solstice provided a gift that allowed humanity to connect with a higher power to gain insight.
“Santa is a modern counterpart of a shaman, who consumed mind-altering plants and fungi to commune with the spirit world,” said John Rush, an anthropologist and instructor at Sierra Collegein Rocklin, Calif.
The Gifts of The Shaman & The Tree
“As the story goes, up until a few hundred years ago, these practicing shamans or priests connected to the older traditions would collect Amanita muscaria (the Holy Mushroom), dry them and then give them as gifts on the winter solstice,” said Rush. “Because snow is usually blocking doors, there was an opening in the roof through which people entered and exited, thus the chimney story.”
In his book “Mushrooms and Mankind” (The Book Tree, 2003) the late author James Arthur points out that Amanita muscaria, also known as fly agaric, lives throughout the Northern Hemisphere under conifers and birch trees, with which the fungi — which are deep red with white flecks — have a symbiotic relationship. This partially explains the practice of the Christmas tree, and the placement of bright red-and-white presents underneath it, which look like Amanita mushrooms, he wrote.
The Evenki and other indigenous groups lived in roundish, teepee like structures called yurts. Sometimes they would place a pine tree in their yurts for ceremonial purposes. This symbolized the World Tree, and they would harness its symbolic power to propel their spirit up and out of the yurt – through the smoke hole, i.e. the chimney. Once the journey was complete, they would return through the smoke-hole/chimney with the gifts from the spirit world. They also believed that the North Star was the very top of the Upper World, and because the World Tree was an axis that connected the entire cosmology, the North Star sat upon the very top of the World Tree – which is where the tradition of placing a star at the top of the tree comes from.
“Why do people bring pine trees into their houses at the winter solstice, placing brightly colored (red-and-white) packages under their boughs, as gifts to show their love for each other …?” he wrote. “It is because, underneath the pine bough is the exact location where one would find this ‘Most Sacred’ substance, the Amanita muscaria, in the wild.” (Note: Do not eat these mushrooms, as they can be poisonous.)
The shaman’s journey and return was ultra-important to the survival of the whole community. What they brought back with them was often a matter of life and death. And time and again the shaman and the people, through these experiences that they deemed not only sacred but divine, would learn knowledge and wisdom directly from the sacred plants, their journeys, and from the spirits they interacted with. This was a kind of life blood for their way of being. This was the gift. The celebration was actually a kind of celebration of life, continued survival and renewal; an honoring of the spirits, animals, plants and natural world that gave them the gift of life and knowledge of life.
Reindeer were shaman “spirit animals.”
The connection between the reindeer, the mushroom and the shamanism is apparent. A very common vision that one has while under the influence of Fly Agaric is precisely that: flying. Massive distortions of time and space occur, affecting scale in dramatic ways.
“At first glance, one thinks it’s ridiculous, but it’s not,” said Carl Ruck, a professor of classics at Boston University. “Whoever heard of reindeer flying? I think it’s becoming general knowledge that Santa is taking a ‘trip’ with his reindeer.”
“Amongst the Siberian shamans, you have an animal spirit you can journey with in your vision quest,” Ruck continued. “And reindeer are common and familiar to people in eastern Siberia.”
This brings us to the grand finally, the big present hidden way back under the tree: Jesus Christ, and the timing of his arrival on Earth. Concurrent with Jesus’ storied birth is a yearly alignment with the sun. On the December 21st winter solstice, the sun reaches its furthest southern point, bringing the northern hemisphere its longest night. For 3 days the sun remains apparently unmoving. On the morning of the 25th, the sun begins its northern ascent once again. This can be looked at as the birth of the sun, which has spent the winter traveling in the lower world, or the world of darkness. When the sun begins to climb once again, it is a time to celebrate the light – literally the return of the light, the source of life on Earth, and ultimately the assurance of the coming summer, which also means the survival of the natural world, the animals, the plants, the people and their way of life. Hence, life and the people are saved. To indigenous peoples who depended on the seasons’ movement and bounty – and especially for the far northern peoples of ancient Siberia – this was a monumental time. The sacred Amanita with its red, golden and orange coloring as well as its capacity to offer direct experience and connection with divinity was also regarded as a symbol for the Sun and its life-giving and saving properties. The Sun – or the Son – is the savior, born on the 25th of December as the bringer of light, harbinger and liberator of life on Earth.
This is the gift and the meaning of the holiday we know as Christ-Mass. When you are decorating your tree, hanging the star, and doing your thing with red and white and presents – perhaps take a moment to reflect on the esoteric meaning of the shamanic origins of Christmas, and what the spirit of this tradition was and is all about.
Check out this great podcast with Daniel Vitalis on “The Cosmic Shaman, Santy Claus.”