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Is Santa Based on a Psychedelic Shaman?

Dec 25, 2018 | 831 videos
Video by Matthew Salton

Many historians agree that the North American figure of Santa Claus can be traced back to a monk named Saint Nicholas of Myra, a bearded fourth-century Greek Christian with a penchant for charitable giving. St. Nicholas was presumably the basis for the Dutch Sinterklaas, patron saint of children, who donned a big, red cape and rode around on a white horse to visit children on the name day of Saint Nicholas, the sixth of December. According to folklore, Sinterklaas carried a red book in which he recorded a child’s behavior over the past year as having been good or naughty. Sinterklaas is said to have been slowly transformed into modern-day Santa by 1700s Dutch immigrants in the New World.

“But maybe there’s another story worth telling this season—one about a psychedelic mushroom-eating shaman from the Arctic.” That’s Matthew Salton, whose animated short film, Santa Is a Psychedelic Mushroom, presents a different origin story entirely. It’s a compelling narrative, backed by Harvard professors, anthropologists, and esteemed mycologists alike, and it bears an uncanny semblance to the modern tradition of Santa Claus.

Until just a few hundred years ago, the story goes, the indigenous Sami people of Lapland, a wintry region in northern Finland dense with conifer forests, would wait in their houses on the Winter Solstice to be visited by shamans. These shamans would perform healing rituals using the hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita muscaria, a red-and-white toadstool fungus that they considered holy. So holy, in fact, that the shamans dressed up like the mushrooms for their visit. Wearing large red-and-white suits, the shamans would arrive at the front doors of houses and attempt to enter; however, many families were snowed in, and the healers were forced to drop down the chimney. They would act as conduits between the spirit and human world, bringing gifts of introspection that could solve the family’s problems. Upon arrival, the healers were regaled with food. They would leave as they came: on reindeer-drawn sleds.

In Salton’s film, the animation is hand drawn; each illustration is traced over at least three times, “depending on how the image moves or morphs from one thing to the next,” Salton told The Atlantic.

Although Salton himself harbors a healthy skepticism about the shamanistic origins of Santa, he believes the inquiry has its own merit. “In my opinion, the connections can’t all be 100 percent true, but they’re surprising and fun to think about,” he said. “My understanding is that most academics who approach the subject do so as a fun exercise and not something to be taken too seriously. That said, I think many would agree it’s important to question and take a deeper look into our shared folklore. Santa consists of an amalgamation of many ideas, traditions, and imagery. My film focuses on just one aspect.”

The animation features interviews with experts on the subject, such as Lawrence Millman, a writer and mycologist who is admittedly not one for holiday cheer. “I hate Christmas,” Millman says in the film. “The shaman comes as a healer or to give advice … we should think in terms of regarding Christmas not as a capitalistic holiday, but a time to think more spiritually about life.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.