Wednesday, December 21, 2016

the Psychedelic Roots of Christmas

The modern Christmas meme of Santa Claus is of a rotund, white-bearded jolly fellow in a red suit with white fir trim, in the company of elves, riding a sleigh full of toys behind flying reindeer, sliding down chimneys to deliver gifts which are hung in stockings by the fireplace with care. In actuality, Santa is the modern version of the archetypal Siberian mushroom shaman. Even today many Siberian male shamans and female mushroom gatherers still dress in ceremonial red-and-white trimmed jackets when they go to gather the sacred mushrooms, which are then hung to dry in the branches of pine trees, like the colorful ornaments that decorate modern Christmas trees. The biochemical effects of these bright speckled Amanita mushrooms (fly agaric) are quite enjoyable and transformative when they are dried before consuming.

After the mushroom harvest is complete, the shamans collect their mushrooms in a sack and place them on their sleighs, which a team of reindeer pulls back to the yurts that members of the community occupy. The nomadic shamans typically live in yurts made out of birch branches and reindeer hides. In winter, snow drifts can cover a yurt's main entrance, so the shaman enters through the smoke hole at the top to deliver his mushroom gifts to other clan members. To further dry the mushrooms, they string them up around the fireplace, and in the morning they awaken to a ritual feast of dried magic mushrooms. Once they ingest the mushrooms, the celebrants leave the physical plane and are transported to the mystical realms of the Cosmic Tree, guided by spirits that live within the mushrooms - corresponding to Santa’s little helpers, the elves.

At the very center of these belief systems stands the persona of the shaman and his or her unique ecstatic experience. With the aid of spirit helpers he can travel to and intercede with the supernatural forces of the Upperworld and Underworld whose mystical geography he has traversed through training and trance. Frequently, although not always, his mastery comes from the use of sacred psychoactive plants, which serve both as a portal to other realms and as a source of transforming power or “soul stuff.” With the concept of “transformation” so fundamental to this worldview, it is easy to see why sacred plants with the power to radically alter consciousness and provide direct access to these supernatural realms would be universally revered in ancient religions. Throughout prehistory the religions of our ancestors were shamanistic.

All of these Christmas themes including the image of Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, the flying reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh, Santa coming down the chimney, the exchange of gifts—even the elves who live in Santa’s workshop at the North Pole - have a real presence even to this day on the steppes of Siberia. You would be jolly too if you ate as many magic 'shrooms as Old Saint Nick. And because fly agaric is probably the favorite and preferred food of reindeer it comes as no surprise that Rudolph's nose may have in fact become red from sunburn after standing stoned and mesmerized in the sun for hours at a time. Kind of changes the way you'll think about "Merry" in the greeting Merry Christmas from now on, doesn't it!

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