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.

Samuel Odman

The suggestion of fly agaric is not based on actual Germanic or Norse sources. It was first made in the eighteenth century by the Swedish theologian and naturalist Samuel Odmann, a student of Linnaeus. Travellers had observed the use of fly agaric as a trance and ecstasy-inducing substance among Siberian shamans. Since the berserkers fought in a kind of trance, Odmann believed that they too used a psychoactive substance. Not unlike modern media and politicians Odmann did not diversify much between the effects of the psychoactive substances known to him. He mentioned opium, belladonna, hemp and datura as possible candidates for the berserker drug. But under influence of the reports of the travellers in Siberia the fly agaric seemed to Odmann the most likely candidate. He believed that a mushroom that induced spirit visions could also lead to rage on the battlefield.

The belief that Germanic warriors used the same mushrooms as Siberian shamans still pervades popular culture, for example in Warren Ellis’ graphic novel Wolfskin. The relationship of Santa Claus with Siberian shamanism has been challenged however. Santa Claus’ mode of travel seems to be quite different from those of the shamans; the shamans did not wear red and white; and the urine that had an important function in Siberian methods of fly agaric consumption has no place in Santa Claus traditions. The identification of Santa Claus with Odin has also been challenged. For example, unlike Odin Santa Claus still has the use of both of his eyes.

Searching for the origins of popular traditions in ancient mythology or pagan rituals is a treacherous and tricky business. But since Odin himself is a treacherous and tricky god, he might inspire us here. If we disconnect Santa Claus both from Siberian shamanism and the Christmas traditions and look at the Dutch Santa Claus and his assistants we notice a few clear correspondences with Odin. In the Netherlands Santa Claus does not travel by reindeer sleigh but just as Odin on a white horse. The warriors that accompany Odin at night, his Einherier, are dead warriors. They can transform into werewolves, break into your house, and drink your beer or eat your food. In popular traditions of the past, up until early modern times, young people would paint themselves black to symbolize that they were dead. In villages other people were warned to stay inside. The black people would roam the countryside. Sometimes they would break into houses and steal drink and food.

The seventeenth-century German writer Johannes Praetorius collected stories and myths of witches and sorcery. In the Blockes-Berges Verrichtung he has a similar story. He tells us that some people are shape-shifters and have the ability to change into wolves. To do this, they have to drink a special beer and utter some diabolical words. Changed into wolves they storm houses, break in the doors, kill cattle and humans, go into the beer cellars and drink all the beer and mead in the barrels.

At this moment Santa Claus and his Zwarte Pieten roam the cities and villages of the Netherlands at night. They don’t break in the doors anymore, but enter silently through the chimneys. Young children put food offerings in their shoes to placate Santa Claus, his assistants and his horse. In return, the children receive presents – if of course they have been good over the past year.

The Zwarte Pieten no longer burst out into an uncontrollable and mindless fury and ecstasy. Nor do they change into werewolves. Obviously they do not consume anymore the beer that according to ancient sources was at the root of the berserker fury. Researchers call this beer Grutbier. Grut is a name for wild rosemary {ledum polustre, still used in homeopathic medicine) and we know that from the early Middle Ages until pre-modern times people brew beer with Grut and not with hops. But Grutbier contained a mixture of all kinds of other herbs and plants. It has been suggested that mushrooms could have been part of this mixture, though henbane (hysocyamus niger) is a likelier candidate for inducing Berserker fury.

As grown-ups we have long lost our fear for Santa Claus, or our excitement about his presence. But as alcohol and drug researchers we can still find enough interesting material in Santa Claus traditions to while away the long nights before Christmas.

2 thoughts on “Santa Claus, Mushroom Beer, and the Dutch

  1. Interestingly wrote article, I’m an Irish man living in Holland. So I’ve been lucky enough to get close with the Dutch version of Christmas, but more so how you guys use the English language. If you’re a native Dutch speaker I am very impressed at your article and hope you continue writing about interesting topics such as these. Good read, Thanks

Comments are closed.