top of page

Amanita muscaria and Christmas Lore

Hello, friends, and Merry Christmas!

This is an impromptu prequel to the book report, an introduction to the mushroom the book (and perhaps the world) revolves around. That mushroom is Amanita muscaria - commonly known as the Fly Agaric, the Mario Mushroom, or the Sacred Fungus. To be honest, I thought the book would touch more on the Christmas story attached to the mushroom but it doesn’t. It goes way past tales and folklore, back to the origins of society and the foundations of religion. A little too heavy for today. Anyway, we’ll focus on a a much lighter, dare I say merry, story about how this mushroom may have inspired the Christmas tradition we celebrate today.


A. muscaria found in Ophir, CO during the Telluride Mushroom Festival in August 2022. The small Amanita “egg” on the right is a juvenile mushroom.
A. muscaria found in Ophir, CO during the Telluride Mushroom Festival in August 2022. The small Amanita “egg” on the right is a juvenile mushroom.

Fun Facts


There’s a lot of festive lore surrounding this mushroom, but whether they’re all “facts” is certainly up for debate. On a day like today we’re not going to let the truth get in the way of a good story. It should first be noted that Amanita muscaria mushrooms are considered to be toxic and there’s even record of someone going into a coma after eating half a kilogram for supper. However, they’re also viewed as traditional medicine dating back thousands of years and even today you can buy medicinal gummies online through social media advertisements. An addage to the old saying, “the difference between a medicine and a poison is the dosage”. Maybe next Christmas I’ll include a recipe for proper preparation…


Amanita muscaria

Amanita muscaria and Santa Claus have more in color than just their colors. The origins of the story dates back to Siberian shamans (medicine men) and indigenous communities that consumed the mushroom for entheogenic purposes. An entheogen is a natural substance that alters perception and consciousness to further connection with a spiritual or religious purpose. Folks, we’re talking about getting high and communing with God.


Transport yourselves to what we now consider Lapland, Finland - at the 67th north parallel and comfortably situated in the Arctic Circle. The North Pole, if you will. Only the heartiest of animals, plants, and fungi live in the area - and this short list of beings does include Amanita muscaria. People in Lapland would eat these mushrooms and experience a range of outcomes from gastrointestinal distress and nausea to sedative and psychoactive effects. The main compounds in the mushroom that act on our senses are muscarine, (the toxic component), and muscimol and ibotenic acid (which both have psychoactive properties).


People in Lapland began to notice that the wild reindeer would eat these mushrooms too. At some point, one intrepid soul discovered that the urine of the reindeer contained all the psychoactive properties without any of the toxic side effects - a naturally distillery. I get it, the winters are long and idle hands make the devil’s work.


The shaggy rings around the bulbous base and the ring higher up on the stipe are identifying characteristics.
The shaggy rings around the bulbous base and the ring higher up on the stipe are identifying characteristics.

On the winter solstice, and possibly throughout the winter, the shamans would travel throughout the villages and deliver the candy red A. muscaria to folks that were sequestered in their homes. All the snow on the ground would render wheels useless, and horses were hard to come by that far north, so reindeer drawn sleighs were the most effective means of transportation. In fact, the snow piled up so high that the front door wasn’t even accessible and the chimney was the only means of entry. Sound familiar?


The shaman would descend the chimney with his bag of mushrooms and happily deliver them to the cabin-bound residents. Maybe even the kids got a taste, I imagine after spending that much time in close proximity the parents would be open to sedatives for both themselves and their kin. Sometimes these mushrooms might need to be dried out, so hanging them above the fireplace, maybe in a stocking with care, wasn’t out of the question either. Or perhaps they were hung on a conifer tree, brought inside to alleviate some of the cabin fever - heck, the mushrooms grow with them symbiotically in the soil already.


Amanita muscaria

All this to say that a quick Google tells you that traditional Santa Claus dates back to the Turkish Monk Saint Nicholas who would give gifts to children, and the modern rendition of that right jolly old elf were brought to us by a combination of Clement C. Moore’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and illustrations from Thomas Nast. There are even rumblings that a certain red and white colored soft drink company had some influence on the modern-day interpretation. This doesn’t mean that the aforementioned shamanic mythology can’t be true, and I’m not in the business of telling people whether to believe something is real or not - especially on a day like today.


A bisection of a juuvenile mushroom just after it erupted out of its universal veil.
A bisection of a juuvenile mushroom just after it erupted out of its universal veil.

Ecology


The fungus is mycorrhizal (forms a symbiotic relationship on/within the roots of the tree) with conifers (evergreens) and some hardwoods, specifically birch. The fungus is originally indigenous to the boreal and temperate regions of the northern hemisphere but, through human transport, can now be found on every continent outside of Antarctica. The mushrooms grow summer through fall. The white flecks on the top of the mushroom are remnants of the universal veil - the membrane that fully enwraps and protects the immature mushroom. The prominent ring (annulus) around the stipe (stem) and the shaggy rings around the bulbous base of the mushroom are the other major diagnostic characteristics.


A. muscaria var. guessowi found down the street from where I live at the local high school.
A. muscaria var. guessowi found down the street from where I live at the local high school.

On the east coast we get a distinct variety of the fungus known as the Yellow American Fly Agaric (A. muscaria var. guessowi - “variant guessowi” named after Canadian mycologist Hans Theodore Güssow). The fungus has the same robust shape and size - the caps growing as large as dinner plates in the largest specimens - but the cap color is much lighter ranging from orange to light yellow. The variant of Amanita muscaria out in the western part of the continent (featured in the first few photos) is A. muscaria var. flavivolvata. There are also several other look-a-likes in the northeast, like A. flavoconia and even the lethal A. bisporigera, so this isn’t an elementary identification by any means. There are much easier ways to chase a high, folks.


A. muscaria var. guessowi found in Cape Cod this summer.
A. muscaria var. guessowi found in Cape Cod this summer.

Now that we have a baseline understanding of this mushroom we’ll go much further down the rabbit hole next week. It’s going to be weird, I’m telling you now. A LOT of fertility talk which presents me with the challenge of making you not as uncomfortable as I was while reading it. Next week will be a Toadstool Tuesday publication as I’ll be traveling on 1/1, so we’ll talk then.


If you celebrate Christmas I hope you have a lovely holiday and if you celebrate Christmas with Chinese food I hope you have a lovely meal and even better leftovers.


Full moon tomorrow,

Aubrey


References:

  1. Kuo, M. (2013, April). Amanita muscaria var. guessowii. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site: http://www.mushroomexpert.com/amanita_muscaria_guessowii.html

  2. Kuo, M. (2013, April). Amanita muscaria var. guessowii. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site: http://www.mushroomexpert.com/amanita_muscaria_guessowii.html

  3. Rampolli FI, Kamler P, Carnevale Carlino C, Bedussi F. The Deceptive Mushroom: Accidental Amanita muscaria Poisoning. Eur J Case Rep Intern Med. 2021 Feb 2;8(3):002212. doi: 10.12890/2021_002212. PMID: 33768066; PMCID: PMC7977045.

bottom of page