Reindeer Really Know How to Fly

by John on December 3, 2009

People often believe supposedly scientifically based “facts” that are simply not true.  Yet, if you trace things back far enough, you can usually find the grain of truth that started people down the wrong track.   The point came up in discussions with a friend who said that my position on the actual risks of cell phone radiation sounded pretty logical but they rejoined by asking, given the season, if my hypothesis about an initial truth were correct, I should then be able to explain the scientific facts behind flying reindeer and such.  Turns out the answer comes from pharmacology and anthropology rather than the science of flight.

It seems that in northern Siberia, the reindeer have developed a taste for those colorful red and white mushrooms, fly agaric (amanita muscaria), and will eat them till they’re higher than a kite.  Anyone eating the meat of such reindeer will get equally high. The village shamen soon figured out how to reduce the toxicity of the mushrooms, while increasing the potency and claiming it helped them fly.  Folks in the far north had not yet discovered the art of fermentation, so the fly-in visits from the shaman with his mushroom treats were much anticipated.  A further point…many shamanistic arctic tribes such as the Koryaks of Siberia lived in semi underground yurt like structures, whose only entrance was a ladder through the smoke hole, or chimney, in the roof, down which the shamen would climb with his gifts, carried in a sack.

Then, in 1931, a young Swedish artist named Haddon Sundblom, obviously familiar with the tales, created a jolly round Santa Claus as a Christmas icon for his client, Coca Cola,  using the company’s familiar red and white colors.  Coke notes with pride that until that time, St. Nick appeared in any number of guises, from a somber man in priestly garb to a green-clad elf, and it was only after Haddon had developed the character over several years that the jolly fat Santa became our Christmas standard-bearer, shown drinking his first Coke in 1934.

There’s even a literary connection with Lewis Carroll, a well known experimenter with psychedelics and apparently a friend of anthropologists who studied the Siberian tribes.  In Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, we meet the Caterpillar, sitting on a mushroom,who tells Alice that eating one side makes you larger, and the other makes you small.  Size distortion is a characteristic of consuming Amanita.  However, with a British sense of propriety, Lewis Carroll’s illustrator showed the caterpillar sitting on a non-toxic, non psychedelic mushroom, rather than risk inspiring the young reader to follow Alice’s trip.

I should point out that I have not studied this tale of anthropological and mycological lore to the level of looking at the original studies, so the possibility exists that this is a wonderfully collective put-up job by several august scientific bodies such as the British Mycological Society and respected universities like the University of Oslo, but I doubt it.  It seems we have almost unlimited precedence for any number of ways to celebrate the Solstice.

So, here we are sitting on a pretty blue planet, warmed as we circle a rather typical type G star, located in a remote spiral arm of a nice, but unexceptional galaxy, and we’ve made it round one more time.  Regardless of your perspective on who, if anyone, really runs the show, it’s hard to find fault with Tiny Tim’ s last hopeful, redeeming and inclusive line from Dicken’s  A Christmas Carol.  “God Bless us all.  Everyone.”

Happy Christmas and a Somewhat Logical New Year.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Helen December 20, 2012 at 9:26 am

Terrifically imaginative, John!


Roy Mendelssohn December 25, 2012 at 11:59 am

So what is your opinion on the risks of cell phone radiation and what was the initial truth.


John December 28, 2012 at 5:25 pm

Scientifically, I find the position of the International Committee on Non-Ionizing Radiation to be the most credible.
You can read more on their site at:


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