Literally meaning “sun stands still,” both solstices (winter and summer) are astronomical occurrences celebrated around the world. While the Summer Solstice is the longest day and shortest night, the Winter Solstice is the longest night and shortest day. As such, it’s also the moment when the days stop growing shorter and start growing longer. Hence, the universal celebration of the return of the sun.
Here are 8 divinities or sacred beings celebrated or honored during this magical time. Read about them for the joy of learning, or consider working them into your Yule spells, Yule altar, or Winter Solstice traditions.
Kachinas. At the Winter Solstice, the Hopi and Zuni Native American tribes observe a ceremony called Soyal. During this time, they honor the return of the protective, beneficent Kachina spirits, which are embodiments of the aliveness and unique life forces of nature and all things, as well as intermediaries between the realms.
St. Lazarus of Bethany. Bible readers may recognize Lazarus as the man whom Jesus famously raised from the dead. Fittingly, his feast day is celebrated by the Roman Catholic church on December 17th, only days before the sun reawakens and restores light and life to the world.
Mithra. In Zorastrianism, the Winter Solstice celebration of Yalda observes the birthday of Mithra, an angelic divinity of protection, truth, and light. Today, Yalda is celebrated in Iran by gathering together with friends and family.
Saturn. In The Encyclopedia of Spirits, Judika Illes writes, “Saturn [Roman spirit of agriculture and lord of wealth] and his Roman consort, Ops, presided over Rome’s most beloved annual festival – December’s Saturnalia, a time for gift giving, holiday cheer, and making merry. When Rome’s Pagan religions were abolished, aspects of the Saturnalia were merged into the new holiday of Christmas.”
Inti. Although Winter Solstice falls in June in Peru, the Incan sun god Inti is venerated during the sun festival of Inti Raymi. The patron deity of the Incan empire, he is beloved as the sun itself in all its many stages and aspects.
Jesus. The main focal Christianity, no one really knows when Jesus was actually born, but the consensus is that his birthday celebration was originally observed near the Winter Solstice in order to syncretize with the solar celebrations of pre-Christian religions (see “Saturn” above). Reframing the manger story as an allegory of the birth of the sun (rather than “son”) during the longest night of the year is quite beautiful and compelling, and casts the story of the three magi and the Star of Bethlehem into a more magical and whimsical light.
La Befana. Speaking of the magi, in Italy, La Befana – sometimes called the Christmas Witch – is a broom-riding, old woman spirit who delivers gifts to children in early January. As the story goes, the magi stayed at her well-kept home on the way to find the baby Jesus. When they invited her to come along on their quest, she declined. Later regretting her decision, she set out to find them and never succeeded. To this day, she searches. Along the way, she bestows fun and/or edible gifts. There is some indication she may correlate with Strenua, the Roman Goddess of the new year.
Odin. The Germanic Winter Solstice festival of Yule observes a time when the Wild Hunt (think ghostly parade through the sky) is particularly present, with the god Odin (also known as Woden or Wotan) at the helm, riding his magical eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. Interestingly, many tie this to the modern day mythos of Santa and his reindeer.