STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Even as children wait for Santa Claus tonight, people at the Harvard University campus have a tradition of their own. Students and faculty gather for the story of Santa and the psychedelic mushrooms. This is not a Rankin/Bass animated TV special. It's a scientific lecture, as NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS: Once upon a time - well, okay, a couple years back, if you want actual facts, biologist Anne Pringle happened to take me from her lab at Harvard, where she studies mushrooms, over to the Farlow Library and herbarium.

Ms. ANNE PRINGLE (Farlow Library): Herbarium is home to one of the world's best collections of fungi of all sorts.

HARRIS: We climb up the stairs to a majestic room filled with glass display cases, folios and portraits. We meet curator Don Pfister, who tells us about the library and the collection's 1.5 million specimens of fungi, algae, lichens, mosses and liverworts, all preserved for academic study.

Mr. DON PFISTER (Curator, Farlow Library): So it's the place to come to do this stuff.

HARRIS: But then we turn a corner. And there, in a glass case, is an odd assortment of artifacts. There are Christmas decorations shaped like red mushrooms with white flecks on them. Amanita muscaria, by name. And also a Santa Claus, dressed in his traditional red robe with white trim.

Mr. PFISTER: I'm going to do a lecture on Amanita muscaria...

Ms. PRINGLE: Oh yeah?

Mr. PFISTER: ...and Santa Claus.

Ms. PRINGLE: Oh, excellent.

Mr. PFISTER: And whole connection there.

Ms. PRINGLE: Okay.

HARRIS: So what's the connection between Santa and Amanitas?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PFISTER: It's a long story. I don't know if we can do it.

HARRIS: Pfister gamely recites the cliff notes version of a lecture he gives every year at this time.

Back in 1967, an amateur scholar named Gordon Wasson published a book arguing that Amanita muscaria, which is a hallucinogenic mushroom, was used in ancient ceremonies by shamans in the Far East. Other scholars then chimed in, noting that in Siberia both the shamans and the reindeer were known to eat these mushrooms with great psychedelic effect. Think of the Christmas connections.

Mr. PFISTER: This idea that reindeer go berserk because they're eating Amanita muscaria, reindeers flying, are they flying, are your senses telling you that reindeers are flying because you're hallucinating?

HARRIS: And Pfister says look at the Christmas decorations here.

Mr. PFISTER: We use, all over the Western world at least, these Christmas ornaments have Amanita muscaria or other have other mushrooms.

HARRIS: And the color schemes?

Mr. PFISTER: So here's a red fungus with white spots and Santa Claus, who is dressed in red with white trim.

HARRIS: Add it all up, Anne Pringle says, and what do you get?

Ms. PRINGLE: People are flying. The mushroom turns into a happy personification named Santa.

HARRIS: She says it with a laugh, but the connection between psychedelic mushrooms and the Santa story has gradually woven itself into popular culture -at least the popular culture of mycology, mushroom science. So every year when Christmas draws near, Don Pfister gathers around the students in his introductory botany class and, no doubt with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, tells the tale of Santa and the psychedelic mushrooms.

Now, some say in this magical season that certain stories are simply too wondrous to question. Others have no such compunction. So, deep breath, here's Ronald Hutton, a history professor at the University of Bristol.

Professor RONALD HUTTON (University of Bristol): If you look at the evidence of Siberian shamanism, which I have done, you find that shamans didn't travel by sleigh, didn't usually deal with reindeer spirits, very rarely took the mushrooms to achieve trances, didn't have red and white clothes.

HARRIS: And they didn't even run around handing out gifts.

Prof. HUTTON: The Santa Claus we know and love was invented by a New Yorker. It was the work of Kevin Clark Moore in 1822, who suddenly turned a medieval saint into a flying reindeer-driving spirit of the northern midwinter.

HARRIS: Moore brought that beloved Santa Claus to life in his poem "The Night Before Christmas."

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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