Christmas traditions began with a star. According to the Bible, more than 2000 years ago the Star of Bethlehem revealed the birthplace of Jesus to the three kings and later led them to Bethlehem.
Centuries later, the story of the Christmas star is still a source of debate. Christians regard it as a miraculous sign from God. But astronomers long have tried to prove that the star was an actual astronomical event.
“We don’t really know exactly what the astronomical phenomenon was,” says Claude Haynes, president of the East Valley Astronomy Club. “It’s one of those things that we don’t have a firm grasp of what it could be.”
Astronomers have several ideas of what the star may have been, he says.
By examining the orbit patterns of the planets, they are able to re-create what the sky would have looked like 2000 years ago. But no astronomical event can directly be tied to historical records.
“One theory is it might have been a supernova,” says Haynes. “We don’t have one recorded at that time, but it certainly is possible that it could occur and you could see brightening of a star.”
Other theories include a comet or a planetary conjunction (when two or more planets converge).
Each year many of the local planetariums and observatories produce holiday shows celebrating the astronomical history of the season. This year the Flandrau Planetarium at the University of Arizona Science Center in Tucson will review astronomical theories behind the star.
In addition to the Christmas star, other holiday traditions, including the yule log, also have roots in astronomy.
The winter solstice (Dec. 22) is the moment when the northern hemisphere is most inclined away from the sun, causing the shortest day. And the winter solstice is also linked to the lighting of the Christmas tree.
'Tis the Season’ Planetarium Show
Where: Flandrau Planetarium at the University of Arizona Science Center, 1601 E. University Blvd., Tucson
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays through Jan. 6. Also, 2:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays Dec. 26-Jan. 4.
Cost: $5, free for ages 3 and younger.
Info: www.gotuasciencecenter.org or (520) 621-7827
Stargazing at the Gilbert Riparian Preserve
Where: The Riparian Institute, 2757 E. Guadalupe Road
When: Fridays and Saturdays beginning at sunset
Info: www.riparianinstitute.org or (480) 503-6744
Where: Challenger Space Center, 21170 N. 83rd Ave., Peoria
When: 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Dec. 29
Cost: $4 for students and seniors, $6 for adults, $5 and under free
Info: www.azchallenger.org or (623) 322-2033