Posted by: kshayes513 | December 22, 2012

Winter Solstice Gods

People who live in the cold latitudes often acknowledge the power of winter by giving it a face. Nearly every old culture in northern Eurasia has some form of Winter Solstice god. The Sakha, a Turkic tribe of Northeast Siberia, look to this guy:

Chysh Khan, the Bull of Frost - the winter king of northeast Siberia

Chysh Khan, the Bull of Frost – the winter king of northeast Siberia

In Sakha tradition, Chysh Khan rises from the Arctic Ocean and brings winter with his breath.  Since cattle don’t live in the far northern latitudes where Chysh Khan rules, many folklorists think he gets his horns and his hoofs (see the cloven hoof pattern on the mittens?) not only from bulls, but from the woolly mammoth that once ruled those tundras.

We modern, civilized Western folks have this guy:


Yes, I deliberately chose a simplistic modern image of Santa rather than some classic Victorian illustration that might hold its own in the presence of  Chysh Khan. But this Santa is a much better representation of how we see our current version of the Winter Solstice god. He got his name from being conflated with Saint Nicholas, a Christian saint whose holy day happens to be near the winter solstice. His red suit with white fur trim came from appearing in an early 20th century Coca-Cola ad campaign. The names of his reindeer, his “naughty or nice” list, his toy factory at the North Pole, and most other details of the current Santa mythology have come either from Clement Moore’s poem, or from a myriad 20th century Christmas songs, TV specials and movies.

Perhaps it has been easy for us to reduce the Winter King to this “jolly old elf” who loves little kids, drives a reindeer sleigh  and gives away toys. After all, for those who live in privileged First World cultures, Winter is seldom a titanic force that could kill us with cold and darkness. It’s a season when we take refuge inside our comfortably heated and electrically lit homes and look out at the Christmas card view, a season of lavish spending and celebrating, and even a season of excitement for the winter sports lovers and the kids hoping for sledding and snowball fights and snow days.

Winter’s King may finally be losing some of his primeval power, as the world warms and ice retreats from the Arctic, and winter gets warmer every year. Yet he is still a god and he reminds us of his might whenever ice storms strand thousands without power or heat, and when blizzards bury highways and cut off remote towns, and when the great winter cyclones pound the Northwest and Northeast with wind and surf as destructive as a hurricane.

So once in a while this winter, if you live where it’s cold, you might step outside and remind yourself that the Winter King still leads his Wild Hunt across the northern world. You can feel his breath in the bite of the cold on your fingertips, hear his wolves howling in the wind, see his path in the tattering of the storm clouds, and sense in the ground under your feet, the thunder of the hoofs with every storm wave that thuds onto the shore.

When you’ve had enough, you can always step back into the warm, put out the milk and cookies and listen for tiny reindeer on the roof.


  1. And watch out for Krampus!

  2. Thanks for the thought provoking new slant on Santa mythology!

  3. This is a fascinating reminder of the power the old gods held over us, with a stunning picture to prove the point. Many of us still see the darker and darker nights coming earlier and earlier as the winter solstice approaches (December 21) as a time of unique danger and personal frailty. So we gather in the darkness, read from old wisdom about such times of year, and light our candles one by one in hopes that the sun will return.

  4. Good article! Sorry to be a pedant, but the Santa-Coke link is apocryphal:

    I only mention because the thought makes me so sad that I want to save others from having jolly ol’ St. Nick tarnished by corporate origins…

  5. Thanks, Will. Corrections always welcome, because I don’t always have time to check stuff that I think I remember accurately! According to this Snopes article, the red suit didn’t become definitive until early in the 20th century, even if Coke wasn’t the absolute origin of it. Before that, Santa/St Nicholas/Father Christmas wore furs in natural colors.

  6. For sure, it seems he has had an ever-evolving history. I’d not considered the old chap from a world-building angle, and he does speak to the decreased bite of winter in our comfortable culture!

  7. Annis – re: “old gods” – when we in the developed world say “old gods” we mean “obsolete (pagan) gods, gods that we no longer believe in or worship.” To the people of Siberia, the Bull of Winter is not at all an old god in that sense. He is an old god only in the sense of being ancient, as their whole culture is.

  8. Actually, when I used the term “old gods” I am thinking of each God archetypally, with all of the deep ancient layers interacting with our minds when we thinking about him or her. For example, when I assigned a poem about Ishtar to my students, knowing about her made them feel much better about being women in today’s society, with more strength and possibility.

  9. In another post’s comments, friend of the blog Cynthia Echterling aka welikehumans, shared a link to this 7 minute short, “Rare Exports” which is a rather original take on the path between the ancient gods of winter and the modern Santa Claus:

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