Noticing mushrooms all over your Christmas decor this year? Here's the story behind the surprising holiday trend

·Senior Lifestyle Editor
·5 min read
colorful christmas decorations as background for new year
Experts say the Amanita muscaria, a red and white psychoactive mushroom, earned its place in holiday decor through some surprising origins. (Photo: Getty Creative)

They're red and white and, according to experts, it's no coincidence that they resemble Santa Claus.

The Amanita muscaria, also called the fly agaric mushroom, is a psychoactive toadstool that's most often red with white spots. The hallucinogenic fungi have made their way into pop culture through the years, most notably as a "power-up" mushroom in Nintendo's Super Mario Bros. video game franchise. But the iconic toadstool is also deeply rooted in Christmas folklore, occasionally making its way into holiday decor and ornament designs.

On a recent holiday shopping trip with my family, I noticed Christmas mushrooms on everything, from throw pillows to holiday ribbons. After I commented on how odd it seemed, my husband pulled out his phone to dutifully find an explanation.

"Whoa, it's about shaman taking psychedelic mushrooms," he said without looking up from his screen. "People think they got high on mushrooms and helped people in their villages solve their problems and that they were actually 'Santa.'"

What?

I needed to know more about this year's mushroom holiday decor craze, so I talked to Carl Ruck, a professor of classical studies at Boston University. Ruck studies the sacred role psychoactive plants have played in religious and shamanistic rituals and says my husband's fast-searched interpretation of why mushrooms are on Christmas wine glasses at my local craft store is "just one of many ways to put it."

Fly agaric or Fly amanita (Amanita muscaria) is a basidiomycete of the genus Amanita. It is also a Muscimol mushroom. Wild mushrooms, Netherlands.
The fly agaric or Amanita muscaria mushroom has a history deeply rooted in the holiday season and all things Santa Claus. (Photo: Getty Creative)

"It's become commonplace and is generally believed that the whole 'Santa Claus' myth is a folkloric tradition of shamanic travel," says Ruck," and that reindeer are notorious for liking to eat these mushrooms and become inebriated on them."

According to Ruck, there's more than one way to interpret Christmas mushroom lore. Some theories say Santa is the psychoactive mushroom — that those who ingested the Amanita muscaria felt "the Christmas spirit" and associated the fungi with ... good tidings of great joy.

"Yes, the chubby round man in red and white could be an anthropomorphism of the mushroom itself," Ruck explains.

"Santa is a personification of the mushroom's spirit," Ruck continues. "Beyond that, there's a even a possibility that Santa Claus as a mushroom surfaces from a cult within Christianity where a psychoactive mushroom was served for the elite in Eucharist."

Carl Ruck says folkloric tales indicate Santa Claus and his flying reindeer may be the result of stories from those who had consumed the fly agaric mushroom. (Photo: Getty Creative)
Carl Ruck says folkloric tales indicate Santa Claus and his flying reindeer may be the result of stories from those who had consumed the fly agaric mushroom. (Photo: Getty Creative)

Additionally, Ruck says tales of flying reindeer could have come from shamans who partook of the fly agaric mushroom then had visions, not of sugarplums, but of flying mammals.

"It is totally implausible that this guy would travel around flying in the air with reindeer when we know that they don't fly," says Ruck. "Perhaps this was a more 'spiritual flight.'"

But not all associations with mushrooms and the holidays are about getting intoxicated. Neal Applefeld is the president and CEO of Old World Christmas, an ornament company that has been selling a "lucky mushroom" ornament since 2017.

"It grew out of this heritage coming out of Germany where you had this culture of hanging a mushroom on the tree as a symbol of good luck," Applefeld tells Yahoo Life. "Then there are these other tangents around it as well that it just so happens they grow around evergreens so you have a good connection with the Christmas tree and the colors are very Christmassy and bright. And then the other hook we love is that reindeer love eating them."

Applefeld likens the red and white mushroom ornament to the traditional Christmas pickle ornament, where a pickle-shaped ornament is hidden on the Christmas tree and the child who finds it on Christmas morning gets an extra gift.

Old World Christmas' CEO, Neal Applefeld, says the company started making its
Old World Christmas' CEO, Neal Applefeld, says the company started making its "lucky mushroom" ornament in 2017. (Photo: Old World Christmas)

"It hasn't reached pickle status yet," says Applefeld, "but we do sell a lot of them."

Ruck says he's also familiar with the German "good luck" connotations of the Amanita muscaria.

"It's very popular in the Alpine regions of Europe," says Ruck. "It occurs in the Germanic and Swiss tradition as well. It's called the 'luck mushroom,' but again, why do you think they were feeling so lucky?"

For those curious about the Christmas mushroom, Ruck warns not to try your own shamanic holiday celebration at home.

"This mushroom isn't easy to eat," he warns. "You have to know how to prepare it and if you don't do it correctly you're going to get very sick. It's not something to experiment with."

Instead, he suggests getting your lucky mushrooms in ornament, throw pillow or holiday candle form, a trend he thinks will only take off from here.

"Once it gets started, it becomes trendy," Ruck says, "and people are buying it without knowing why they're doing it."

"Or," he jokes, "maybe some of them do."

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