Christmas has come and gone for the year 2020, and New Year’s is right around the corner. The holidays are undoubtedly a time for friends to get together and toke, but such traditions go back way farther than recent history. All throughout history, cannabis has been used as part of our favorite holidays. So, let’s take a look at the connection between Christmas and marijuana.
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Pagans and Christmas
Christianity didn’t just happen overnight, and as it passed through into different areas in the world, it incorporated into local traditions. Before Christmas was known as the holiday that marked the birth of Jesus Christ, it was known for representing the winter solstice, which is the shortest day of the year, and the longest night. The parties of that time of year were called ‘Yule’, which is the Germanic term used for the winter solstice. Yule essentially marked the end of the days shortening, and was a celebration of the coming months of greater sun. Though it isn’t one of the plants generally associated with Christmastime, Christmas and marijuana go together traditionally, right along with more known plants like evergreen trees, mistletoe, cloves, holly, and cinnamon.
One story goes as follows: Before the time of the 12 days of Christmas, those days were known as the 12 Raw Nights. As the story goes, the pagan god Woton (aka Odin), galloped across the sky with his army to fight the battle of light versus dark, called the Wild Hunt. Woton and his army, by folklore, were known to pick up unsuspecting victims from the ground, and were often accompanied by other demons which came out during these nights. One of the traditions to ward off evil at bedtime was the use of nine herbs, one of which was likely cannabis. The story of Woton and his flying army is thought by some to be the basis for the Santa Claus story, and draws an early connection between Christmas and marijuana.
A cool Yule tradition that is carried on today has to do with beer. It was customary among German pagan traditions to brew special beers during Yule called Julbeers and Wodelbeers. Though there were actually strict brewing laws at the time to ensure pureness, these rules were often ignored during this time, and extra ingredients were often put in to increase the intoxication. Plants like wormwood, black henbane, and cannabis were used for this purpose.
Why was Santa so jolly?
Another story about Christmas and marijuana implies that our good old Santa Claus might have stayed so jolly because of what was in his pipe. In the poem A Visit From St. Nicholas (or, the Night Before Christmas), there is a line specifically speaking about Santa smoking his pipe and smoke encircling his head. Back then, along with regular tobacco, something else called ‘baccy’, which was a mix of different herbs including cannabis, was used. There was even a specific word used for the cannabis seeds in this herbal mixture: knastert.
But it might not have been cannabis that really made Santa jolly. In fact, psychedelics seem to have their place in the Christmas story too. Many Christmas traditions come from shamanistic traditions of Northern Europe in pre-Christian times. People of this region had a sacred mushroom called the ‘fly agaric’, or the amanita muscaria mushroom, which is red and white, and grows under fir trees and evergreens. Since they contain a potent hallucinogenic, they’re often associated with magic and fairies. The harvest and use of these mushrooms is associated with the idea of Santa Claus, flying reindeer, gifts, and Christmas trees.
Many of these ancient peoples believed in a ‘world tree’, which acted as a cosmic axis, with roots going down to the underworld, and branches reaching up into heaven. These peoples also revered the North Star, as they thought all other stars revolved around it. This star went together with the world tree, and the general center axis of the whole universe, with the top of the tree reaching the North Star. It was said that the spirit of the shaman would climb the tree to pass into the realm of gods. This explains the star traditionally put atop the tree, and perhaps where the idea of the north pole comes from.
Another aspect about these traditions, the people who celebrated them thought that the mushrooms grew without an actual seed, meaning a virgin birth. They saw this as a result of dew left on the ground which acted as semen. Tinsel put on trees is meant to represent this perceived seminal fluid.
A last note about reindeers
In what is an exceptionally weird story that I can only hope is true, it’s said that the active ingredient of the amanita mushrooms doesn’t actually get broken down by the body when consumed, and passes out in the urine. It is even considered safer to access the psychoactive ingredients by drinking the urine of someone who has already eaten them, since some of the more toxic chemicals would be processed out at that point. Anyway, this actually made it a practice to drink the urine of those who had already consumed mushrooms, with the active compound supposedly lasting through about six passes through.
Where do reindeer come into this kind of weird practice? Well, turns out, reindeer were not only a highly regarded animal by these ancient peoples, but also liked consuming the mushrooms, which led them to prance around in a high state. People often drank the reindeer urine to access the psychoactive effects.
To take this story up a notch in weirdness, reindeer also liked to drink the urine of people who consumed the mushroom, leading tribesmen to carry around containers of their own mushroom-enhanced urine to attract back reindeer which had strayed away from the rest of the herd. One of the main effects of amanita mushrooms is to give the user the sensation of flying, which could explain the folklore around Santa and flying reindeer.
A little about caroling
Another Christmas and marijuana (or rather, cannabis) tradition which is still practiced in Poland and Lithuania today, has to do with hemp soup on Christmas eve. Called ‘semieniatka’, the soup is actually offered to dead family members who come back for holiday visits with the fam. This, in turn, could go back even further to ancient Scythians, a culture that used cannabis heavily in death rituals and funerals.
In what is currently Russia, Germany, Lithuania, and Poland, the people of these areas during pagan times celebrated a Slavik holiday called Koleda. The holiday was in reverence to the god Koliada, who is represented by the weak, but growing, winter sun which is considered reborn after the winter solstice. According to this tradition, a sacred rite called Koleduvane was practiced on the evening of Koleda, in which single men would dress up as ‘Koledari’ which meant wearing a costume from one of three categories: anthropomorphic, zoomorphi, or anthropo-zoomorphic, which were represented by different animals. The group was led by a ‘grandpa’, meant to be an older, wiser character.
One character in the group was called ‘bride’, and symbolized the birth of the new moon, and the death of the old one. The ‘bride’ sat atop a wooden hemp breaker, which was carried by the other members, and at the same time spun hemp. At midnight, the whole Koledari group would head out, going house to house, singing out front, and then going through the house to investigate for evil spirits. Any spirits found would be duly chased from the house to help ensure a good harvest the following year. The patrons of the house, glad to have spirits removed, would pay for the service with heckled hemp fiber, which was then made into thread by the ‘bride’. The thread specifically symbolized fertility and was meant for newborn clothing. This tradition of going house to house and singing (and removing evil spirits) is thought to be the basis for Christmas caroling today.
Further investigation turns up even more stories to explain the Christmas stories of today, with different connections to drugs like hallucinogens and cannabis. One thing is for sure, in the year 2020, Christmas and marijuana sure go together, and it seems they have for quite some time.
One last note – all of this is folklore. I stand behind none of it as actual history, but find it interesting how these old stories weave into the traditions of today. Perhaps some stories are true, or partially true, perhaps we won’t know. But it sure makes Christmas more fun to think that these stories might be real.
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