strange magic and holiday traditions

Originally, it was a custom of English apple orchardists to wassail the major trees of their plot, singing their toasts during the twelfth night celebration. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Carol O'Meara, Colorado State University Extension

Carol O’Meara, Colorado State University Extension

LONGMONT – Who would have guessed that we have a lowly, potent mushroom to thank for our visions of flying reindeer pulling around a rosy-cheeked, jolly old elf decked in red and white garb?

Ancient peoples followed traditions before the arrival of Christianity, and one central to many northern European and Asian peoples’ winter solstice celebration was consumption of fly agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria). The red-capped, white flecked mushroom would emerge under pine, spruce, or birch trees near December 21, the time when nights are longest.

Fly agaric is poisonous, with hallucinogenic toxins ibotenic acid and muscimol. It has other toxins that make people violently sick as well, so, dear readers, do not try this mushroom (I repeat, do not eat this mushroom).  Animals have been known to enjoy this mushroom recreationally, particularly caribou, who prance euphorically after ingesting it.

Before the popularity of another psychotrophic mushroom bumped this from use, fly agaric was sought after by shamans in ancient cultures for religious ceremonies, most notably in Siberia. A side effect of eating it is a rosy, red flush to the cheeks and face. The hallucinogenic effect of euphoria, or a sense of flying, plus the prancing reindeer is suggested to be at the root of some of Santa’s hallmark traits. Just the thought of stuffing himself down a chimney points to hallucination.

Although we have the company Coca-Cola to thank for the modern depiction of Santa, some prefer to believe that his signature red and white garb is a symbol of the mushroom, instead of a refreshing beverage. And there are plenty of ornaments and images throughout history depicting fly agaric as traditional holiday décor.

Of all the traditions we follow at this time of year, the one that captures the heart of a gardener is devoted to the health of our fruit trees. In the revered horticultural practices of the 15th century, gardeners sang to apple, pear, and other fruit trees to ensure a bountiful bearing next year.

Yes, wassailing – which we mistakenly think is door-to-door caroling – was actually cutting edge farming technology in medieval times. And though there’s a lot of science we can bring to the care of our trees, perhaps a bit of tradition can’t hurt.

Originally, it was a custom of English apple orchardists to wassail the major trees of their plot, singing their toasts during the twelfth night celebration.  These trees were often the mothers from which the scions were cut to form the orchard, and close attention was paid to keeping their branches supple and healthy.

Done properly, cider or liquor was sprinkled over the roots of the chosen honorees, possibly because of the trip hazard they provided.  This seems an unnecessary waste of good cider; today you can substitute in a good drink of water for the plant. They really haven’t gotten enough moisture this winter.

If you think about it, wassailing your trees in winter serves several purposes: it gets you out into fresh air and you have the chance to look your trees over for signs of sunscald, vole damage or storm injury.

As adorable as the tradition is, one component of wassailing should be updated to suit the modern world: firing guns into the air to frighten evil spirits away.  This is not okay, no matter how bad our economy gets. Take a few pots and pans out to the trees with you, and bang away on them as you warble your song. At the very least, those voles may be driven off temporarily.

Given the amount of time I spend singing to my garden along with whomever is on the radio, my plants aren’t harmed by a bit of wassail. And now, when the days are gloomy, I think I’ll go sing to my trees.  The touch of care may mean they won’t turn into firewood for the Yule log next year.

By Carol O’Meara, Colorado State University Extension. Colorado State University Extension, together with Boulder County Parks and Open Space, provides unbiased, research-based information about consumer and family issues, horticulture, natural resources, agriculture and 4-H youth development. For more information contact Colorado State University Extension at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, 9595 Nelson Rd., Box B, Longmont, 303.678.6238, e-mail [email protected] or visit