Today’s Google Doodle celebrates the Winter Solstice, which takes place on December 21, 2014.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. It’s the Shortest Day & the Longest Night of the Year
The winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year and the longest night of year. It is an astronomical phenomenon that occurs twice a year. For the Northern Hemisphere, it occurs around December 25, while for the Southern Hemisphere, it occurs around June 25. This is because the Southern and Northern Hemispheres face different directions along the planetary pole. As one of polar hemispheres has winter, the other has summer. Right now inhabitants of the Southern Hemisphere are experiencing their summer solstice. Collectively these solstices are known as the “December solstices.”
For inhabitants of the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice process becomes most noticeable around December 1 when the sun appears to “move” south and get smaller. By the day of the actual winter solstice, the sun has reached its lowest point in the sky at -25.5°. Once it has reached this lowest point, an interesting thing happens: the sun appears to stop moving south for three days. After this, the sun moves 1° north, announcing the coming of spring. It will continue to move northward until the summer solstice, when it reaches its highest point.
This information was pulled from the video above, which gives a one-minute, layman’s explanation of the winter solstice along with some of the mysticism involved.
2. It was a Time of Celebration in the Ancient World
As the the video above hinted at, there was a lot of religious mysticism involved with winter solstice in the ancient world.
For example, Stonehenge, located in Wiltshire, England, is a neolithic monument many agree was built to track the movements of the sun.
The people that built Stonehenge, like other cultures of their day, were dependent on the solstices because it allowed them to know when the cold months would come, where food production would slow or even halt depending upon their location.
In more temperate climates like Mediterranean Europe, the solstice would begin a month of parties. The wine and beer made in the summer would have just completed fermentation, and since vegetables and grains would become scarce, animals would be slaughtered, whereas in the summer months, meat was rarely on the menu.
3. Many Ancient Religions Also Saw it as a Symbol of Their ‘Sun God’
Many religions of earlier days viewed the winter solstice as the death and rebirth of their god.
The death and resurrection of a god is a common motif. The video above points out the obvious symbolism reflected in the “sun” dying on the cross and resurrecting three days later like the New Testament states Jesus does.
Other gods and goddesses said to do this include Baal, Melqart, Adonis, Tammuz, Dionysus, Ishtar, Persephone, and Bari.
Besides the death and resurrection of gods, another common theme of the winter solstice is “starting new”, which can be reflected in modern times as New Year’s resolutions.
In older times, vestiges were sometimes burned, like the above Wicker Man, to symbolize the rebirth of a new self and the destruction of sins.
4. It’s a Time of Modern Holidays
With all the ancient wonder surrounding the winter solstice, it’s no curiosity as to why we have many modern holidays around this time of year.
Besides Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, there are a multitude of others including Lohri, celebrated in the Punjab region of Asia, Yaldā, celebrated in Iran, Pongal, celebrated in Thailand, and many, many more.
All of these festivals have the same theme of rebirth.
5. Christmas Lands on the Day the Sun Rises
As today begins the the longest night of the year, it is seen in Christian eschatology as the death of Jesus and his resurrection on Christmas Day.
Many also believe it is Jesus’ literal birthday.