Winter Solstice: What are Yule, Saturnalia and Nardugan?

Winter Solstice: What are Yule, Saturnalia and Nardugan?

For most of us, December means long nights, decorated pines, preparations for New Year’s Eve, and maybe mulled wine. Not to mention events such as Christmas, Yule and Nardugan… But are these festivals, which have their origins dating back to ancient times, any connection with each other?

What is Yule?

Yule, also known as Jul or Jól, is one of the ancient pagan festivals that is usually celebrated on the winter solstice today. It was mostly popular among Nordic, Germanic and Celtic communities. Many researchers think that Yule has its roots in Nordic traditions.

When is Yule Celebrated?

Yule was celebrated between November and January, according to some sources. However, some authors stated that it was celebrated in January and early February. In the Southern Hemisphere, this period coincides with July. However, many researchers think that these dates were changed in the 10th century during the reign of Norwegian king Håkon.

Swedish archaeologist Andreas Nordberg wrote that the date of Yule was changed as a Christianization policy during the reign of Norwegian king Håkon. According to Nordberg, pre-Christian Scandinavian communities used a lunar calendar. That’s why the date of Yule was changing every year. Yule used to be celebrated on the first full moon after the new moon following the winter solstice. Therefore, Yule was in January in some years and in early February in some years. However, King Håkon fixed the date of the Yule to the same date as Christmas in order to facilitate the Christianization of the society.1

According to the pre-Christian tradition mentioned by Andreas Nordberg, in the 2022/2023 season, Yule coincides with the date of January 6, 2023.

Yule Traditions

Today, Yule traditions are localized in the Wiccan, neopagan, shamanic and secular communities. Gathering, gift giving, incense burning, and feasting are the most common traditions. Yule celebrations often take place around bonfires. The bonfire sometimes does not go out for days thanks to the large logs.

Winter Solstice: What are Yule, Saturnalia and Nardugan?
A cake in the shape of a Yule log. These cakes have also become a part of Christmas culture today.

Another Yule tradition is to decorate houses with pine branches, mistletoe or holly. Many researchers think that some modern Christmas traditions are influenced by Yule traditions.

What is Saturnalia?

Saturnalia was the name of a festival celebrated in December in Ancient Rome. Although the dates were changed by different emperors, it was usually celebrated between December 17 and December 25. Therefore, it can be said to be one of the winter solstice festivals.

Saturnalia was a festival held in honor of the Roman god Saturn. During the festival, schools and government institutions used to be closed. Social rules used to be relaxed. There used to be entertainments everywhere. Candles used to be lit to symbolize the return of light. Neighbors used to give each other small gifts.2

Winter Solstice: What are Yule, Saturnalia and Nardugan?
Candles are one of the popular decorations of the winter solstice festivals. Candles and fire often symbolize the return of light.

It is known that the Saturnalia festivals lasted until the 4th century. With the adoption of Christianity by the Roman emperor Constantine, the Saturnalia festivals lost their former glory and disappeared over time.

What Does Nardugan Mean?

Nardugan is a festival celebrated by some Turkic communities and its roots go back to the pagan/shaman period. The word “Nardugan” means sunrise or newborn sun in Old Turkic.

It is not clear whether the word “Nar”, meaning Sun, is of Turkic or Mongolian origin. But, “dugan” is definitely of Turkic origin.

Tatar language expert R. G. Ahmetyanov stated that the term Nardugan exists in the vocabulary of all Ural and Middle Volga communities.3

When is Nardugan?

According to Turkish sumerologist Muazzez İlmiye Çığ and Russian historian Murad Adji, Nardugan is celebrated every year on the winter solstice.4 The winter solstice falls on December 21, according to the Gregorian calendar. After that day, the days start to get longer and the nights get shorter. This is considered to be the beginning of the victory of the day against the night, that is, the victory of the light over the dark.

Gulfia Zilifovna Kamalieva, an expert on Tatar philology and history, also stated that Nardugan is celebrated on the winter solstice and that the Nardugan traditions are similar to the present-day Christmas traditions.5

The author Kutlu Altay Kocaova has a different view on when Nardugan is celebrated. According to Kocaova, Nardugan was a name given by a Christian Turkish community to Nowruz, which was celebrated in March.

What to do on Nardugan? How is Nardugan Celebrated?

According to Muazzez İlmiye Çığ and Murad Adji, Nardugan was one of the most important festivals celebrated by the ancient Turks. The lengthening of the days was interpreted by some Turkic communities as a victory of the Sun and was deemed worthy of celebration. According to this view, prayers were prayed to Ülgen in gratitude for the victory of the Sun over the night. As a matter of fact, D. R. Sharafutdinova stated that the Sun cult was at the base of Nardugan.

Ülgen is mentioned as the creator of the Sun in many shaman prayers.

The sun was considered sacred in almost all proto-Turkic and Turkic communities, as in many pagan communities. Doğan Avcıoğlu wrote that the Xiongnu emperors used to worship the Sun every morning.6 For this reason, celebrations related to the Sun, such as Nardugan, among the ancient Turks are in harmony with the Turkic belief system.

Okunev Petroglyphs and Eurasian Solar Deities

Muazzez İlmiye Çığ said that pine trees used to be decorated for prayers and celebrations on Nardugan.

Winter Solstice: What are Yule, Saturnalia and Nardugan?
In Turkic mythology, many trees were considered sacred and it was emphasized that some trees had supernatural abilities.

We know that the cult of trees occupied a very important place among the ancient Turks. For example, juniper incense was used to drive away spirits. Cypress trees were planted in some graves due to their tall stature and upright posture. In addition, the Turks saw trees as a means of conveying prayers to God. Therefore, it is a very common tradition to pray under the trees. That is, it is possible to use trees as a means for prayer in Nardugan. Since the season is winter, it is a reasonable explanation to prefer evergreen trees such as pine.

Juniper in Mythology and Folk Beliefs

What Are the Nardugan Traditions?

Congratulating neighbors, putting on new clothes, giving gifts, organizing entertainment, praying to Ülgen, and making offerings under trees were the most common practices in Nardugan. It is thought that writing wishes on colorful cloth pieces and hanging them on trees may form the basis of today’s tree decoration traditions.

A common tradition related to Nardugan among today’s Turks is to eat pomegranate and drink pomegranate wine. Pomegranate symbolized fertility in many communities due to its multi-grain structure. For this reason, it has become a common tradition to eat pomegranates for a fruitful New Year. However, the regions where pomegranate trees grow remain in the south of the old Turkic cultural geography. Therefore, it can be said that this tradition was included in Turkic folklore later on.

Much of what we know about Nardugan is based on oral sources. Written sources only go back to the early 1900s. This causes many historians to be skeptical of Nardugan’s origins.

Who is Ayaz Ata?

Ayaz Ata is the first figure that comes to mind when Nardugan is mentioned. He is the Turkic variant of Ded Moroz in Slavic folklore. There are two important views on his origin. According to the first view, Ayaz Ata is a fictional character inspired by Ded Moroz in Russian folklore. He was later included in Turkic folklore. Today, he is seen as a variant of Santa Claus.

According to the other view, Ayaz Ata is the modern day version of Ayas Han in ancient Turkic mythology.

Ayas Han was created from moonlight. The word “Ayas/Ayaz” meaning dry cold in Turkish is derived from the root “Ay-” meaning Moon. In ancient sources, the term Ayas was often used for moony and cold nights.

With the end of the autumn season, Ayas Han blows the cold air in his mouth to the earth and the winter season begins.7

  1. Andreas NORDBERG, Jul, Disting Och Förkyrklig Tideräkning, 2006, ISBN 91-85352-62-4^
  2. “Medieval Mythography: From Roman North Africa to the School of Chartres, A.D. 433-1177”, Jane CHANCE, University Press of Florida, 1994, ISBN: 9780813012568^
  3. “Общая лексика духовной культуры народов Среднего Поволжья”, Р.Г. Ахметьянов (R. G. Ahmetyanov), Изд-во “Наука”, 1981^
  4. Мурад Аджи – Кипчаки. Древняя история тюрков и Великой Степи, 1999, ISBN 5-88149-044-4^
  5. Традиции встречи нового года в системе праздников тюркских народов“, Г. З. КАМАЛИЕВА, Академии наук Республики Татарстан^
  6. “Türklerin Tarihi”, Doğan AVCIOĞLU, Tekin Yayınları, ISBN: 9789754780208^
  7. Türk Söylence Sözlüğü“, Deniz KARAKURT^