You’re probably familiar with the Christmas pickle tradition: On Christmas Eve, someone hides a pickle ornament on the tree. Whoever is the first to find it is believed to either receive an extra gift from St. Nicholas in the morning (if a child finds it) or have good luck for the coming year (if an adult finds it). But it turns out pickles aren’t the only accessories that bring good fortune: The Christmas mushroom may have equally positive powers. Curious? We were, too!
Known in German as glücklicher pilz or gluckspilz (which literally means “lucky mushroom”), the red-and-white speckled fungi grow deep in the forest. Its real name is Amanita muscaria or fly agaric, and finding one is thought to be a sign of good luck, similar to the way the Irish view four-leaf clovers. That’s because the roots of this specific mushroom can only grow in the root zones of certain types of trees, which happen to be those we generally think of as Christmas trees.
The mushrooms are also common around the holiday season because that tends to be when mushrooms are foraged in the wild. These days, most of us buy mushrooms at grocery stores rather than foraging for them. But the tradition of gifting mushrooms and mushroom imagery has stuck around, especially for those of German or Austrian descent who still exchange the pretty red-and-white fungi at Christmastime (often in the form of cards or other trinkets). You’ll also find mushrooms are a popular decoration for Yule log cakes like this one.
There’s another reason this particular fungus has been dubbed the Christmas mushroom: It’s a favorite food of reindeer! In fact, Santa’s favorite animal loves the mushroom so much that reindeer herders use bags of it to keep them together and avoid losing any strays. Not only are reindeer attracted to the scent of the mushroom, they’re also drawn to the scent of anyone or anything that’s eaten it (via the eater’s urine, but that’s another story).
If you’re into urban legends, there are several accounts claiming that the idea of flying reindeer was derived from reindeer that partook in a little too much of the hallucinogenic mushrooms. We’ll leave that one up to you to interpret!
While the Germans may have hung the dried mushrooms on their trees more for luck than decoration, we can’t help but notice the similarities between the fly agaric and modern Christmas decor. They’re both bright and cheery and prominently feature reds and whites. Plus, the firetruck-red cap of the fly agaric stands out on brown forest floors just like Rudolph’s red nose sticks out in the night sky!
Of course, you don’t have to hang an actual mushroom on your tree. There are plenty of adorable ornaments featuring the festive fungi. Or you can whip up a mushroom dish for your holiday spread to channel the good luck vibes. (We love this baked mushroom chicken and this mushroom turkey tetrazzini.) But whatever you do, don’t cook with the pretty red-and-white ones! They’re poisonous, so reserve them for decorations only.