Christmas is a time of pretty lies. Christian children have the wool pulled over their eyes, although they’re too enamored with their gifts to care whether their dolls or video games really came from Santa Claus. But the parents, too, may be deceived — and not just by the corporate takeover of the holiday, which obscures the Christian message in a fog of materialism.
Who is Santa Claus?
If you ask the internet about the origin of the Santa Claus character, you’re shown at least two diverging paths. The first, most well-trodden one takes you to the conventional explanation, that Santa Claus was mainly a merger of Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas, with some details taken from the nineteenth century poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” and with roots stretching back to Dutch folklore and Germanic paganism. Later, Coca-Cola popularized the character in its 1930s advertising. See, for example, Wikipedia, Britannica, History, and National Geographic.
However, if you find yourself asking about those roots in European folklore which also feed into that key poem, you’ll head in an altogether different direction towards a bizarre account, according to which most of the details of the Santa Claus story — the North Pole setting, the flying reindeer, Rudolph’s red nose, the pine trees, the hanging of gifts in stockings by the fire, the elven helpers, Santa’s climbing down the chimney and his red and white outfit — derive, rather, from the practices of Siberian shamans who brought the Northerners gifts of wisdom in the form of altered states of consciousness caused by psychoactive mushrooms.
This second account is based on the work of some iconoclastic scholars. See, for example, this article, this one, this one, or this one. See also this animated video explanation which places the origin in Lapland, northern Finland.
Sacred and Profane Narratives
I’m less interested in the historical truth of the matter than in the analogy that can be drawn from the divergence between those explanations. Even if there’s no connection between Santa and psychedelic shamans or even if there were never such shamans who had Santa-like practices, the religious truths about the nature of the universe and our role in it must be more like the shocking, outlandish second account of Santa than like the reassuring first one, with its overtones of anti-spirituality, given its glaring compromises with capitalism and consumerism.
Recall that Jesus said, “Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matt.13:13). Luke adds that when a disciple asked what his parables meant, Jesus said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables” (8:10).
In both cases, the New Testament quotes from Deuteronomy 29:4, where Moses chastises liberated Israel for failing to have faith in God even after the Israelites saw what God had done to the Egyptians, with all the miraculous signs and wonders. “But to this day the Lord has not given you a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear,” Moses tells them. God tells the Israelites he led them through the wilderness to demonstrate his power and benevolent intention, which was to establish a covenant with them.
It’s easy to read any of these religious stories and laugh at the foolish followers who fail to trust in their religious leaders even after having witnessed miracles. We wonder how anyone could be so foolish, since obviously we’d have no choice but to credit an immediate religious experience. Yet the ultimate truth proclaimed by religious scriptures is always perfectly preposterous, which explains why the scriptures had to be written in the first place, to shame friends and neighbours for their rational doubts and to demonize those who scoff at the nonsensical myths.
Suppose the ancient Israelites were held captive in Egypt and were freed by twists and turns of fate. Would it have been obvious that they were therefore God’s chosen people or that the creator of all things wanted to strike a special deal with that wandering tribe? To boast that their unlikely liberation must have been a benevolent God’s handiwork, because the Israelites are righteous and must therefore be backed by a righteous deity is one thing. We could attribute that boast to lingering animality in that population of human brains, such as to their genetically-determined pride.
But to actually believe that Egypt as a whole was wicked, that the source of all natural things plays personal favourites with clever mammals or that God spoke directly to Moses would be to so alter your mindset that you’d be useless for conventional purposes. The sacred and the profane worlds are opposed to each other, at least from our unenlightened perspectives. We go about our daily routines, automating our behaviour by conforming to social conventions and to the laws and traditions that allow millions of strangers to live together in a civilization, as Yuval Harari points out in Sapiens. Popular culture arises not because it captures any ultimate truth but because it keeps the peace, whereas the weirdness of the sacred world threatens to tear society apart and must therefore be diluted, betrayed, or reined in with taboos, as the literary philosopher Georges Bataille explained.
Religious Revelation begins with Atheism
Religious stories evolve along two divergent streams which we might call the “exoteric” and the “esoteric.” The outer, profane narrative is for those who aren’t so spiritual or who are conflicted between their moral obligations and their secular temptations. This superficial level of religious narrative corresponds to the twaddle about Santa Claus keeping a list of the naughty and the nice, travelling the world with flying reindeer, and climbing down your chimney to bestow presents on the well-behaved.
Then there’s the more unsettling, subversive interpretation of the religious narrative, which corresponds to the bizarre account of Santa’s psychedelic origin. Santa wears red and white, for example, because the shaman dressed up to look like an Amanita muscaria mushroom. Now, dwell for a moment on the strangeness of that conspiracy theory: all the hoopla about Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, and presents wrapped up under the Christmas tree, all the Christmas songs, merry-making, and family feasts might amount to a whitewash that protects society from the insidious secret that sacred truth is found in a poisonous mushroom. The presents Christians give each other would be hollow imitations of the enlightenment and self-transformation that can happen in rarefied states of consciousness.
We can take the analogy further, passing from the comparative triviality of Christmas to the totality of both Western and Eastern religions, and we can ask whether their most popular “spiritual” narratives are necessarily profane and exoteric. How could an underground cult or a spiritual movement become a religious institution, with hundreds of millions of members, without taming its sacred message, reserving the ultimate truth only for the intrepid or even self-destructive and crazed few, and without feeding the majority so much pablum?
The mystics and occultists who would sacrifice their happiness with the herd of complacent citizens break taboos or renounce popular culture out of deference to a “higher calling.” By contrast, the herd is pacified with the equivalent of Christmas jingles.
All myths about gods, then, all tales of miracles in the style of magical realism are necessarily profane and anti-spiritual. (If you don’t like the word “spiritual,” because its connotations have been sullied by the word’s association with organized religions, you can substitute “spiritual” with “existential.”) We know those tales are profane because they’re so popular; the more popular they are, the greater their banality and misdirection. It’s the same with art: the most popular artworks have the least aesthetic purity and capacity to challenge and elevate the viewer’s mindset.
Whatever the ultimate truth may be, it’s not going to flatter some primates that happened to evolve, by assigning to that which is most real the personal qualities of those deluded primates. At best, gods and miracles are symbols that can be mined or codes that can be cracked. At worst, organized religions are traps, prisons, or frauds.
In fact, the notion of “ultimate truth” is itself likely superficial, because the idea that truth consists in a happy agreement between facts and some arrangement of our symbols is only an intuitive, anthropocentric conceit. In any case, we should begin our quest for enlightenment by recognizing that whatever’s really happening on this planet and throughout the universe is likely, at a minimum, strange and horrific to our most useful sensibilities.