Santa Claus, Mushroom Beer, and the Dutch

In my home country, The Netherlands, Santa Claus does not come for Christmas. By then he has already left. Santa Claus comes every year to the Netherlands to celebrate with us his birthday on 6 December. A few weeks before his birthday he sets out from his home in Spain by sea, on a steamer (he has arrived a week ago).  Santa Claus is accompanied by his assistants, the so-called Zwarte Pieten, or ‘Black Petes’. What is rather strange about Zwarte Piet or Black Pete is that his skin actually is black. To some this is offensive. To these people the fact that Santa Claus’ assistant (not himself) is a black person is a racist trait, a legacy from the age of slavery. The first appearance of the modern incarnation of Zwarte Piet in Dutch popular culture seems to date from around 1850, when slavery still existed in the Dutch colonial empire and when black slaves still worked the plantations in Dutch Suriname in the Guianas. Other interpretations seek the origins of Zwarte Piet in a more distant past. Might it already be a surprise to many children and their parents to learn that Zwarte Piet could actually be a Surinamese slave, it might be even more surprising for them to learn that he could be the descendant of a psychoactive plants or mushrooms consuming Germanic warrior.

Santa Claus and his Zwarte Pieten

Relating the Santa Claus traditions to ancient pagan beliefs and rituals is common in literature on psychoactive mushrooms – more in particular, in the literature on the fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria). In this perspective Santa Claus is Odin (Wodan), the Germanic god of ecstasy, warfare and poetry. Some nights he haunts the countryside on his Wild Hunt, with his warriors and his Valkyries, the immortal maiden who inspire the mortal heroes and select them for Valhalla. In ancient and medieval times Odin’s special warriors were the bear- and wolf warriors, the Berserkers and Ulfheonar who would fight naked (that is, without armor) in an uncontrollable and trance-like fury. This trance was, it is maintained, induced by the consumption of psychoactive substances. The fly agaric is routinely mentioned as the most likely candidate for the substance used. This mushroom is also commonly used as a decoration motif in Christmas trees and on Christmas cards.

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