How a Mushroom Found In Buckingham Palace Explains Santa Claus

Aminata muscaria mushrooms, also known as fly agaric, are seen in a wooded area near Bordeaux, southwestern France. Regis Duvignau / REUTERS

Last week, a film crew found a hallucinogenic mushroom called fly agaric in the gardens of London's Buckingham Palace. It was uncovered by British television presenter Alan Titchmarsh during preparation for a show called The Queen's Garden.

The species, also known as Amanita muscaria, grows wild throughout northern latitudes and is likely to have ended up there naturally, without being specifically cultivated. (The smart money says the queen was not growing them for her own recreational purposes.)

You may be familiar with Amanita from depictions in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Nintendo's Super Mario Brothers video games and in Disney's animated musical film Fantasia, according to the Irish Independent.

Fly agaric contains alkaloids that can cause hallucinations when ingested. But the mushrooms also make some people quite sick. While the mushrooms can be toxic when ingested raw, native Arctic peoples have been known to drink the urine of another person (or even a reindeer) that consumed fly agaric. The idea is that the liver gets rid of many of the toxic substances but leaves some of the other psychoactive substances behind.

Either way, they have been used by shamans in religious ceremonies for thousands of years and thus are referred to by some as the sacred mushroom. And one theory posits that the mushrooms explain the story of Santa Claus.

As I wrote two years ago for LiveScience, the theory goes that Santa is the modern-day equivalent of a Siberian shaman, who went about giving out psychoactive Amanita mushrooms near the winter solstice. It has been well-established that other "pagan" solstice traditions, such as bringing greenery into the house during winter, have been subsumed into the Christian holiday of Christmas.

Santa riding a sleigh in Finland. This might appear differently under the influence of mushrooms. Kacper Pempel / REUTERS

The shaman would ride around on a sleigh, carrying his or her "gifts" in a large bag. Then the shaman would drop into locals' tent-like dwellings through an opening in the roof—hence the story about Santa coming in through the chimney, said John Rush, an anthropologist and instructor at Sierra College in Rocklin, California.

These sacred mushrooms, colored bright red and white, are found under conifer trees in the wild. The late James Arthur wrote in his 2003 book Mushrooms and Mankind that the tradition of placing Christmas presents—clad in red-and-white wrapping—under coniferous Christmas trees stems from this fact.

And what about the "flying" reindeer? The idea is that hallucinations induced by mushrooms led people (or the shaman) to think the animals were flying.

"Amongst the Siberian shamans, you have an animal spirit you can journey with in your vision quest," said Carl Ruck, a professor of classics at Boston University. "I think it's becoming general knowledge that Santa is taking a 'trip' with his reindeer."

The theory posits that these traditions, known throughout Northern Europe and the Arctic, were incorporated into Clement Moore's 1823 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas (which later became famous as 'Twas the Night Before Christmas), which established many of the modern-day details of Santa Claus. But of course, many academics do not buy the connection.