Of all the myths about magic mushrooms, the one I most wanted to be true was that Father Christmas is secretly and originally a fly-agaric munching shaman from Siberia. Alas, there's very little evidence that he was, and rather a lot to suggest he wasn't, and it turns out this myth was invented by the poet, Robert Graves, in one of his poetic flights of fancy, back in the early 70s.
But while researching Shroom, I discovered something interesting: Santa Claus and Father Christmas are not the same figure at all (see Ronald Hutton's The Stations of the Sun). Saint Nicholas, and the tradition of leaving presents for children on Saint Nicholas' eve, arrived in America with the Dutch, at their colony on Manhatten island. By the time New Amsterdam had become New York, Saint Nicholas had been quite forgotten, that is until he was revived by Washington Irving who transplanted the saint's traditions to Christmas Eve.
Irving inspired others. Most of the imagery associated with Santa (flying reindeer, chimneys and all) comes from one subsequent source, Clement Clark Moore's saccharine poem T'was the night before Christmas: the rest was cooked up by artist Thomas Nast and the advertising executives at a popular fizzy drink manufacturer (who need not be named). In other words, the modern Santa Claus is an American confection.
I've just written about my feelings towards the festive season for Spiral Earth so I shan't repeat them here, but it seems to me that everything that is wrong with Christmas is encapsulated by Santa: the consumption, the excess, the mad rush at a time when we should be still, the shmaltz and pester-power, the pretence that this is all somehow magic.
No wonder people like me need Santa to be something else, something genuinely rooted in the myths and traditions of what is an ancient midwinter festival, one that exists not to sell us stuff, but to heave body and soul through the dark days ahead. If Graves had dug just a little deeper in his quest to find re-enchantment he would have realised that he didn't need to invent a spurious shamanic tradition for Santa: he could just have drawn attention to the English figure that Santa superceded and who is more than fit for purpose - Father Christmas.
According to Hutton, people began to personify Christmas here in the seventeenth century (that's tradition aplenty). There was always something slightly unruly about Sir, Lord or Father Christmas, concerned as he was with feasting, merry-making and adult concerns. As such he appears in various seventeenth century masques and still, today, in Mummers Plays. This photo doesn't depict Father Christmas, but you get the idea...
In my imagination Father Christmas becomes a swarthy figure, crowned with holly, mistletoe and yew, carrying a double-headed axe (with which to sort out Gawain) and a flagon of magic winter solstice brew. No presents. No mad rushing about trying to meet the insatiable demands of children. No ersatz gestures. Just an ancient figure with a story or two, hoying us through the night with a fart, a joke and a twinkle in his eye. High time, then, that we rid ourselves of Santa, the gaudy imposter, and bring back the true spirit of Christmas.
And on that note, have yourselves a happy Yule. Whatever you do, may it work it's ancient magic upon you. Thank you for reading, and I'll be back in the new year for more. See you then.