Christmas is packed with plants, fir trees, holly boughs, mistletoe and so on but for me the Fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) more than any other plant has contributed to the iconography of the modern Christmas – the one dominated by the spector of Santa Claus. That polar, red coated, fur trimmed, sack carrying, chimney entering, gift giving, rosy cheeked fellow. I am no fan of that flagrant peddler of consumerism but It entertains me to note that up in the polar territories of Lapland, the traditional dress of the Sámi shaman who for thousands of years have utilize the Fly agaric as an entheogen (a psychoactive principle for ritualistic consumption) is red with white fur trim.


When the shaman foraged for the special mushroom they collected it in ceremonial sacks. Fly agaric is also dried and stored in sacks material. At ceremonial times of the year and especially the winter solstice (21st dec) – just on Christmas’s doorstep – the local shaman would visit the individual yurt or tepee-like structures of the villagers to dispense some dried mushrooms from his sack and perform his ceremonial duties – in such climes with deep snow the best entry point would be through the smoke hole of the yurt – effectively down the chimney. As to the rosy cheeks – a side effect of Amanita muscaria consumption is a flushed face. No wonder he is jolly. But there is more to this mushroom than Santa.


The fly agaric is a saprophytic fungus of the order Agaricales it bears an umbrella-like cap with gills on the underside – the mushroom’s cap is mainly dark red or a reddish-orange decorated with small creamy-white dots and patches in an irregular pattern. Even in December, the fly agaric mushroom appears under trees, mostly firs and spruces – the very sort we take our presents from under on Christmas morning.

The Sámi of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the polar cap as well as the indigenous Siberians and other peoples in regions of the artic where reindeers roam and Amanita muscaria are found growing, utilize the Fly agaric as a recreational as well as ceremonial high.

Bear with me a moment – When one thinks of the old biblical story of Adam and Eve and the tree of knowledge which has been related down the centuries as an apple tree, some writers believe it to more a quince than apple, others proffer other fruit but seen as this tempting ‘fruit’ yielded a mind expanding grasp of hidden knowledge it is plausible to consider it to have been the grape – the great intoxicant. Yet there are valid arguments and artefacts and ancient art that would have the fruiting body of Amanita muscaria as the tree of knowledge. Certainly fly agaric mushrooms may just be one of the earliest utilized intoxicants circa 5000-3000BC.


The evidence of fly agaric as the earliest of intoxicants is based primarily upon the linguistic analysis of languages from northern Asia. the Uralic language of that region split into two branches around 4000 BCE, both strains retained similar root words for inebriation which passed on to further splits and dialects. One such root “pang” signifies the state of ‘intoxicification’ and also denotes the fly agaric mushroom and petroglyphs dated approximately 1000-2000 BC portraying anthropomorphic figures depicted with mushrooms affixed to their heads have been discovered along the Pegtymel River which flows into the Arctic Ocean at the north eastern end of Siberia – a region where Amanita muscaria is indigenous and ethnobotanically harvested by the local Chukchi culture and has been as far back as memory carries.

So the recreational use of this plant and how it relates to me wishing you a merry Christmas – The plant has some toxic alkaloids besides its hallucinogenic and psychotropic agents – and the local peoples soon discovered ways around that. Now this bit reminds me of the old joke about the first human to milk a cow – what the hell did they think they were doing??

The trick to purify the mushroom for consumption was to feed it to reindeer (who eat it anyway and seem to enjoy the intoxication) and then gather the reindeer urine in which the LSD-like ibotenic acid was retained without the dangerous alkaloids. Yes – you have guessed it – they drink the urine. Wait it gets better – Evidence suggests the mushroom’s hallucinogens remain effective even after passing through five or six people. And that was often the practice. They would go on ‘the piss’.

So now when you are getting festively ‘pissed’ this week you will know the origin of the idiom. And be it beer, wine, spirit, mushroom tea, reindeer urine or other – drink sensibly and have a merry Christmas!!

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About The Holistic Gardener

author of wellness books, columnist, keynote speaker.
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