Before there was the holly and the ivy, there was another plant associated with Christmastime: cannabis.
Many historians agree that Germanic peoples of pre-Christian Europe used cannabis as part of religious celebrations welcoming the winter solstice, which falls at the time of year when many people celebrate Christmas today.
While the purpose of using cannabis in these rituals remains hazy, it’s not out of the question that Germanic peoples would experience psychoactive effects from the herb as part of their religious festivities during this season.
The winter solstice celebrations of yore would be wildly different than the Christmas celebrations of today. But many of the legends and themes Christians applied to December 25th were inspired by Germanic religious traditions.
Which begs the question: how closely is cannabis connected to Christmas?
Here’s what we know about how cannabis was used in pre-Christian Christmastime festivities.
Cannabis and the “Wild Hunt”
The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, but also the longest night. Commonly known as “Yule” or “Yuletide,” many Germanic tribes celebrated the sun on this day and the season around it. The harsh winter months were leaving, and it was time to celebrate warmer weather around the corner.
With warmer weather comes greener environments. This is why green plants were hugely important in Yule celebrations. To this day, greenery (such as holly and evergreen trees) is used in Christmas decorations around the world.
Winter solstice celebrations went on for many days. Are you familiar with the 12 Days of Christmas? Before then, there were the 12 Raw Nights. This occurred at various times of year for different groups of Germanic peoples, but most commonly between December 25th to January 6th. During this time, it was assumed that the pre-Christian god Wotan and his army would battle across the sky. It would be a fight between light and darkness.
This spar is known as the “Wild Hunt.” It would bring about demons and evil spirits. To ward off evil and calm the gods, people would smudge their houses with nine herbs. According to Christian Rätsch and Claudia Müller-Ebeling in their book “Pagan Christmas,” these herbs included juniper, mugwort, and likey cannabis.
If this story sounds familiar, there’s a reason. Some believe the legend of Santa Claus and his reindeer flying through the sky on Christmas eve draws inspiration from the Wild Hunt. And to this day, many households will put out something to keep Santa happy when he comes to call.
Maybe we should be leaving out joints instead of cookies?
A closer look at Santa’s pipe
In “Pagan Christmas,” Rätsch and Müller-Ebeling speak to another Germanic tradition – the smoking of a strong mixture of herbs called “baccy.” When you put cannabis seeds in your baccy, it was called “knastert.” Smoking baccy with cannabis seeds in it was a popular activity in the Yuletide season.
This, again, might bring to mind a popular Christmastime image. Remember old St. Nick with his pipe? Well, the authors of “Pagan Christmas” believe Santa’s pipe may have been inspired by the image of Rübezahl, an ancient mountain spirit associated with Germanic religious festivities who famously always had a pipe in hand.
Perhaps we’ve been missing the true source of Santa’s jolly nature.
Though little is known about Germanic tribes and the celebration of Yule, there’s quite a bit of scholarship indicating hash was used in their Christmastime celebrations. Maybe ancient Germanic people were getting high for the holidays, or maybe it was just one of many herbs used to infuse relaxation, health, and harmony into the Yuletide season (and keep the gods at bay).
Either way, we think we may follow in their footsteps by making this holiday season a little greener.