Have you ever wondered why in modern Christmas tradition we do the things we do? What is the origin of the Christmas tree, with the star on top, decorations about, and all the brightly wrapped presents beneath? Or the idea behind Santa Claus who jets around the globe in a magic sleigh with flying reindeer – defying both time and space – to deliver the world’s children a bounty of Christmas gifts? And since when did Santa and the birth of Jesus have anything to do with each other? Where do these stories come from – and better yet: what are we actually celebrating on Christmas morning?
There are answers to these questions. And 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. Their survival depended largely upon the health and vitality of their domesticated reindeer. The reindeer provided the Evenki and other northern tribes with everything from clothing, housing material, wares and tools from the bones and antlers, transportation (yes, they ride reindeer!), milk, as well as cultural and religious inspiration.
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.
Although intensely psychoactive, Amanitas are also toxic. One way to reduce the toxicity and increase the psychoactive potency was to simply dry them. 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!
Another way to reduce the toxicity of the sacred mushrooms is through human filtration. Once passed through the body, the toxic elements are apparently filtered by the liver and the resultant urine that comes out contains the still intact psychoactive elements. So they drank the filtered urine. But that’s only half the story. Somewhere in the mythic origins of this practice is the reindeer. Because the reindeer also love these mushrooms. They dig through the snow to eat them, and they also drink their own urine afterwards. So perhaps, long ago, one of the first shamans witnessed the reindeer’s love affair with this peculiar mushroom – as well as its propensity for eating its own freshly yellowed-snow – and saw how peculiarly it behaved as the romance heated up. The curiosity (indeed a hallmark characteristic of a shaman) couldn’t be contained, and the shaman did what he had to do: he first ate some of the yellow snow himself… and without a doubt realized the profound wisdom and magic not only in the mushroom, but in the reindeer. And so this romance, too, began…
However it may have happened in antiquity, 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. Not only do you observe yourself flying, but also other things… like reindeer. It is not that difficult to connect the dots here. Shamanic people are deeply invested in their environment. They learn the magical and mystical properties of the natural world, and often assign a great deal of importance and sacredness to the bearers of that magic. For some of these ancient Siberian people, this power was charioted by the reindeer and the sacred mushroom. That the reindeer should have the ability to fly is evident not only in the vision, or their clearly altered state once intoxicated, but also in the wisdom they offered to the shamans by eating the mushroom in the first place, and for guiding them to do so just the same.
It wasn’t only the reindeer who could fly, but the shamans also took flight. As mentioned, the shamanic journey or soul flight is a keystone in shamanic practice and especially so in ancient Siberian culture. In order to interact with the spirits, the shaman had to be able to leave this world and enter theirs. This was accomplished by projecting his or her spirit from the physical and into the immaterial. They either needed the power to do this on their own, or use a spirit helper to take them. It is very common for shamans to develop relationships with birds, naturally, as they have the power to fly. But here, in the North Pole, what better animal to use than the magical, flying reindeer?
Sometimes, the greatest tragedies bring the greatest benefit. Our greatest strengths paradoxically sourced from the same root as our greatest weaknesses. The death of something old and worn, like a garment from a dying life, is necessary to usher in something new as it is reborn into another form that takes the shape of who we are now. Meta-physical composting. This is true for individual selves, as it is for communities, families, interpersonal relationships, nations and the entire world. Such is the path of transformation -- the evolution of the self, identity, spirit, and meaning.
This is also the way of the shaman. It is a way of transformation, from one state of being to another; from one way of engaging and knowing the world to the expression of something entirely new. This path brings healing, clarity, knowledge, capacity, growth and transformation -- but it can be a road wrought with difficult passages. It is essential to remember the basics, the foundation of our spiritual and personal paths.
And as we do, and apply what we know from the ground up, with each new realization that comes, and with each new intention that's planted in the soil of personal transformation, we grow. We change. We evolve. This is shamanic evolution. It is the action paired with shamanic intent that leads to manifestation. With each ceremony, each medicine experience, and every movement along the path, there is movement and change in the spirit -- in your spirit, and the spirits all around you. If engaged, it is inevitable: there will be change, there will be newness, and there will be growth and development.
But you have to do it. This is a path of action. It is the engagement of the intention that creates the movement, not the desire for the change to happen. The desire for change can be formed into a pattern that actually works against the ultimate resolution of your intention. Part of the challenge that is faced when trying to transform ourselves and our lives is that wanting to change these things is an integral aspect of the same cycle that actually works against fostering the desired changes. It's tricky, a Catch-22. It would seem like wanting to change something is a necessary first step in order to initiate that change. But when that desire is coupled to the continuation of a cycle that does not include taking the necessary actions, it gets worn into a pattern of not doing, and thus no manifestation and no change. You find yourself right back where you started: having the same kinds of challenges or problems, constructing the rationale about the problems in your mind, wanting to change those problems, telling yourself you are going to do it, and then not doing what it takes to make it happen but continuing to have the thoughts and desires about it.
This is because the action of change is independent of the desire. The desire is only satisfactory in the dimensions of the mind. And because the desires and thoughts are experienced entirely in the mind, they satisfy the mind just enough in order to keep the cycle going. They are essential to the cycle that perpetuates not transformation, but continuation of sameness and stagnation. Thinking about doing something or wanting to do something isn't a requirement to actually get up and do it. Consider it. Do you need to think about walking in order to walk? Do you have to think about eating in order to eat? How many times have you done something that you didn't really want to? For instance, physical exercise: How often do we think in our minds that we really don’t want to exercise, and then do it anyway? Or how many times do we create the plan to change something about ourselves or our lives and then never do it -- like for New Year's resolutions?
The action is independent of the desire. The desire can't ever manifest into something. It will always and only be a desire. So it's really simple. Shamanism, or any kind of transformative experience or path, is dependent on your actions and what you are doing. And so despite the mayhem and chaos found in the mind, and regardless of all the fear that keeps you from moving, here it is: the doing is the doing is the doing IS the change.
Matt Toussaint has immersed himself in shamanic practice and exploration for the past 10 years. He currently resides in Peru where he serves as an apprentice shaman and facilitator at a plant medicine retreat center. Read more.