The “Christmas Star”
A frequent Reference question at this time of year in libraries is the origin of the “Christmas Star”, sometimes called the “Star of Bethlehem.” This year you might think you are experiencing a little bit of what the “Christmas Star” phenomena might have been like as the planet Jupiter is very bright in the evening sky, the planet being the closest its’ been to Earth since 1963. It is brilliant in the sky and rivals Venus in the morning for its brightness.
Librarians can get a little stumped trying to answer the “Christmas Star” questions and oftentimes go on an extended field trip to try and get an explanation. The questions usually go something like this—“Did it exist and was it really a star?” “What was happening in the sky at this time?” Adding to the mystique is the story of the three Wise Men following the star for weeks and that as astrologers they knew the heavens intimately. So, what were they following?
Modern day Astronomers have been conflicted about the “Christmas Star” story for decades presenting the three most likely scenarios to be that it was 1) a supernova, 2) a comet, or 3) a conjunction or alignment of planets, often forming the shape of a triangle in the sky.
The only problem is, even with the help of sophisticated sky software, present day Astronomers cannot place any of these astronomical events in the heavens at this time of year 2000 years ago. There were no comets, supernovas, conjunctions or extraordinary celestial events recorded, even by Chinese astronomers or Mayan records, etc. So, is the “Christmas Star” fact or fiction? Another possible explanation presented sometimes involves moving the date for Christmas to another season or that the date was changed to December to coincide closer with the Winter Solstice, occuring around December 21st of each year.
If the date for Christmas is moved to March, in the springtime, and around 6 years B.C., Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were close to each other in the sky, forming a conjunction in the shape of a triangle in the Constellation of Pisces, of which, according to Jewish records, the Wise Men would have known recurred from time to time. Could this be an actual explanation of the phenomenon seen in the sky and that Christmas was really a springtime event, not a winter one? It is unlikely we will ever really know for sure what happened or when, but the story of the “Christmas Star” remains alive and well repeated throughout the generations. In some cultures the first star seen on Christmas Eve each year becomes” the “Christmas Star”.
While the librarians and we are left to conjecture and debate about the actual origin and existence of the “Christmas Star”, we do have the very real knowledge I believe, that stars and planets, no matter when or where their origin, carry special meaning for us down here on planet Earth.
As an additional present to ourselves this season, I think we should all take a moment or two among all the festivities to look up and enjoy the heavenly sights for a moment wherever we are, check out Jupiter and “make a wish upon a star” for the New Year.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!