A few years ago, I was traveling in the Chukotka region of eastern Siberia, and I happened to eat Santa Claus.
Or perhaps I should say that I ate the mushroom traditionally eaten by Siberian shamans before they turn into Santa Claus.
Or maybe I should just say that the figure of Santa Claus consists of, among other figures, a Siberian shaman tripping on magic mushrooms.
Before you accuse me of profaning a popular Christmas icon, consider the mushroom in question.
It’s called Amanita muscaria (in the vernacular, the fly agaric), and it has a robust red cap sprinkled with white splotches.
Of course, you might say: I’ve seen that mushroom illustrated in children’s books. Likewise, you might recognize it as the mushroom Alice (of Wonderland fame) consumed under the tutelage of the hookah-smoking caterpillar.
While Alice got bigger and smaller, respectively, my own size did not change after I ate the mushroom. Instead, I had the distinct sensation that I was flying effortlessly through the air.
Or as one of my Chukchi companions put it: “With mukhomor (Amanita muscaria), you do not need a ticket or a boarding pass.”
I also felt euphoric, so euphoric, in fact, that I imagined all was right with our beleaguered world.
At first, however, I was merely nauseous. Very nauseous. Half an hour after consuming the mushroom, I found myself vomiting repeatedly into my host’s chamber pot.
That’s because, in addition to muscimol, the alkaloid that gave me the illusion of flying, Amanita muscaria contains ibotenic acid, an alkaloid that can give the stomach a quite rough ride.
But, I dare say, every flight has a certain degree of turbulence.
Once upon a time, flights like the one I took were an essential feature of Siberian shamanism, especially among the Chukchi and Koryak people.
But in the 1930s Stalin’s henchmen rounded up every shaman they could find, herded them onto planes, and once the plane was airborne, they’d open the cargo door.
“You say you can fly,” they’d remark, “so — fly ….” Whereupon they’d push their victims out.
You’re probably wondering what these ill-fated shamans have to do with Santa Claus.
Let’s say you’re a Siberian reindeer herder 100, or so, years ago, and you’ve taken to your sleeping skins with an unspecified ailment.
The local shaman pulls up in front of your yurt in his reindeer-drawn sled, then enters the premises through the smoke-hole that also functions as your front door.
He’s already eaten several dried Amanita muscarias, and his face has a flushed ruddy glow — the same glow, perhaps, that we associate with a certain large, gift-giving individual.
“What’s wrong with me?” you ask your visitor.
As a testimony to his euphoric state, the visitor utters a booming “Ho, ho, ho,” and then proceeds with his diagnosis.
It seems you’ve been cursed by your next door neighbour, a guy who thinks some of your reindeer are his reindeer.
Damn that little scuzz-ball, you say to yourself: he’ll do anything to get my reindeer.
“But I’ll undo the curse for you,” the shaman declares. As he beats his drum and dances around the inside of your yurt, he chants and chants and chants some more.
Miraculously, you begin to feel better even before he’s finished his performance.
And once you acknowledge your improved condition, the shaman heads back up the yurt’s smoke-hole, then whisks off with his reindeer to see another client.
During his visit, the shaman might have appeared to you as an Amanita muscaria himself.
For a person who has consumed the mushroom often turns into a facsimile of it, or at least takes on its distinctive red-and-white colour scheme.
Thus you now associate that colour scheme with the shaman’s gift — i.e., your recovery.
I confess that none of the people with whom I’d eaten the mushroom looked like anything other than modern-day reindeer herders. Nor did any of them tell me that my blue Gore-Tex parka had suddenly become red-and-white.
This I attribute to the fact that in a post-shamanic age, human eyesight has become dimmed, and we’ve lost our ability to perceive the numinous.
Here I might mention that reindeer themselves have a great fondness for Amanita muscaria.
If they eat it, they often end up stumbling around in a seemingly spaced-out manner.
No one has ever interviewed a reindeer about this, but if they could talk, I suspect they might say that they quite enjoy the sensation of flying.
They might also say that a reindeer with a red nose is afflicted with a parasite — warble-fly larvae — and that while the condition is painful, it does not typically result in one’s nose glowing like a light bulb.
So now it’s Christmas Eve, and not a creature is stirring in your house.
All of a sudden, there’s a noise in your chimney, and an overweight man with a disheveled white beard emerges.
He has a bag full of gifts, whereas you have a nearly empty bank account. Even so, treat him with the utmost respect. For he’s come a great distance to visit your house, over time, tundra, and various oceans, and he has the remarkable ability to heal whatever ails you.
Travel writer Lawrence Millman is the author of Last Places: A Journey in the North among many other books.