Cultures have celebrated the winter solstice into antiquity, the darkness seeming to engulf the land, as a weakened sun struggles to light ever shorter days. Life seems precarious, the abyss near. Then the light returns, the sun reborn for another year, an endless cycle. Many of the symbols of early solstice celebrations remain with us today.
A mushroom, a pine tree, and some reindeer pee. Not often the start of a great story, but what a mushroom this is. Amanita Muscaria is toxic (don’t try this at home) but when passed through the body of a reindeer, who loves to munch these ‘shrooms, and whose liver can process them, they become a psychotropic drug. Early Siberian shamans must have noticed the extra spring in the reindeer’s step after eating the bright red and white fungi and, naturally, they tried drinking their pee, to marvelous hallucinogenic effect, enabling flight to the spirit world.
Drying the mushrooms also helped to remove the toxins. The shamans gathered the mushrooms under pine trees, with whom they share a symbiotic relationship, in a large sack, wearing red suits with white dots, resembling the mushrooms they picked. The mushrooms were dried over the fire in a sock.
This much of the story is somewhat well known; the early pagan origins of the Christmas tree, the red and white suit, and of course the flying, or perhaps tripping, reindeer. As none of these originate in the land of Jesus’ birth, the hero of the Christmas story, European paganism seems a reasonable place for the answers to come from.
Lesser known is the cult of the Deer Mother, revered since the Neolithic. It is the female reindeer who keep their antlers in winter, and as the larger and stronger deer, they lead the herd through the heavy snow. Mother and earth goddesses held major importance for much of the past in Europe, and deer and stag imagery is endemic in the ancient religious imagery. In some parts of Siberia, most shamans were female. The flying reindeer of Santa’s sleigh harken back to the Deer Mother and her cult of mushroom tripping, spirit-world flying shamans and the reindeer, pulling the sun through the dark night to be reborn on the solstice, whose pee allowed it.
Enter the Christmas Witch. Riding a traditional broomstick through the skies of Italy, on the night prior to Feast of Epiphany on January 6th, La Befana rewards good children with presents and naughty ones with lumps of coal. Epiphany marks the manifestation of Christ to the Magi (three wise men), and legend has it that they were on the way to the manger when they met La Befana, stopping to ask her for directions and then spending the night at her house.
Before leaving in the morning, they asked her to join them but she refused, changing her mind later and rushing to find them to no avail. As she never found the baby Jesus, each year for Epiphany, she takes to the sky, commemorating the Magis meeting with him. The broomstick is a change of pace, but the night flight to reward the good and punish the naughty represents another variation on holiday traditions and an earlier, shamanic, and most likely female origin of parts of the solstice time tales and festivities that we have come to know as Christmas.