The real origin of the Christmas story with its vivid, fanciful imagery and its association with Jesus Christ (Christ’s Mass) just might blow your mind, literally! Fairy tales aren’t just for kids. As adults, we have our fairy tales too, and they are often hidden in plain view as this little-known Christmas story reveals. (I’ll leave it to you to read between the lines.)
In the far northern reaches of Siberia, live the hardy Tungus, Evenki people, nomadic hunter-gathers, and reindeer herders. The name of their indigenous religion comes from the Evenk saman (one who knows), pronounced shaman. Traditionally, on the winter solstice, the shaman throws a large sack of amanita muscaria mushrooms over his shoulder to gift the tribe. The distinctive white-flecked, red-capped mushroom contains powerful hallucinogens ibotenic acid and muscimol.
The shaman wears a red coat with white fringe, resembling the special gifts he bears. During the frigid winters, yurts—round, portable dwellings made from reindeer skin and felt stretched over a wooden frame—are often snowed in, which requires the shaman to enter through the central smoke-hole.
The amanita mushroom grows preferentially at the foot of pine trees with which its mycelia have a symbiotic relationship. The mushroom cap (fruiting body) appears shortly after rainstorms in the autumn and spring. During collection, the colorful mushrooms are placed in the boughs of the trees to dry in the sun.
It turns out, reindeer also like to eat amanita muscaria and the shaman has to be quick to harvest them before the reindeer find them. Intoxicated reindeer are known to dash, dance, and prance about. When humans ingest these mushrooms, their nose turns bright red. Reindeer will also eagerly eat the urine-soaked, yellow snow from an intoxicated shaman, as substantial amounts of the psychoactive drug pass into the urine unchanged, lending another meaning to the expression to “get pissed.”
Drying facilitates the transformation of ibotenic acid (a prodrug) into muscimol, which increases the psychedelic potency while reducing unpleasant side effects of nausea and vomiting. Traditionally, the mushrooms are placed in stockings and hung by the fire to dry.
The Tungus shamans practice a unique group ritual where men sit astride a long bench and shake reindeer bells in unison as they journey to the upper world. A pine tree is placed inside the yurt to symbolize the axis mundi, the cosmic axis, a portal through which participants ascend to the north star placed at the top of the tree.
At the opposite, southwest corner of the massive Eurasian continent, ancient people carefully tracked the point at which the sun rose on the horizon each morning. They observed as the days grow shorter the sunrise shifts further south along the horizon until reaching the winter solstice on December 21st. At that point, something remarkable happens. For three days, the sun rises at the same point before reversing its journey northward. (The term solstice comes from the Latin solstitium, ‘the sun stands still.’) From there, the days begin to grow longer. It’s as if the sun (son), the bearer of light is reborn, overcoming the darkness and saving life on earth.
There is much more about amanita muscaria's relationship to the Christ story, but it will have to wait for a future Pleasure Report.
Christmas is a special day for me for another reason. Years ago, early one snowy, Chicago Christmas morning, my father rushed my mother across town at high speed to the Holy Cross Hospital (escorted by a police car that had pulled them over). I was born 22 minutes later.
A birthday on Christmas is a mixed blessing. People never forget your birthday, but don’t usually give two presents. So I feel I have the moral standing to ask a favor of you: Please buy a copy of aah . . . The Pleasure Book, which will be a great gift for yourself or a friend, and I will consider your purchase a personal gift to me, as well (two presents for one).