As I sit down to write there are five planets, two large asteroids, and the Earth's moon aligning in the Universe. Christmas Comet Leonard discovered at the Mount Lemmon Infrared Observatory trailed across the desert early this morning. That's a lot of exciting activity leading up to Christmas. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that I would have seen it. The sodium lights of the city suppress the twinkling of the desert night sky, which in remote regions of the state is unbelievably brilliant.
There are city ordinances to reduce light pollution in the nearby Camelback neighborhoods of Paradise Valley. These are designated Dark Sky Communities with an international headquarters in Tucson. This concept isn't unique to Arizona. Find the closest one to you here.
Last year on Winter Solstice day, the Christmas star or Star of Bethlehem appeared in the closest great conjunction of planets in 800 years. Unfortunately, it likely won't happen again for another sixty years. So ahead of this year's Winter Solstice, let's look at what's apropos in the heavenly realm this holiday season.
Part of what makes this time of year so spectacular are the illuminated holiday customs, from window menorahs to twinkling trees and rooftops. Each religion's tradition has a culturally significant origin, but the lights are high on my list of favorites. Some other customs from the Roman Pagan Saturnalia appear to be absorbed by early Christians, such as decorated trees, gift-giving, cookies, and more. Thanks to its role in the great conjunction, which we will discuss, Saturn may be relevant to the formation of the Christmas Star after all.
For Christians, there's no other celebration where a star has a central or supporting role other than the Messiah birth story, but there's more. Astronomers have theorized that the Christmas Star may not have been a single gaseous star at all. Instead, many believe the miraculous sign that led the Magi, who were astronomers themselves, to the Prince of Peace was likely a great conjunction of planets. The planets were Jupiter, and you guessed it, Saturn, as seen a year ago. The two planets were overlapping with only 0.1 degree of separation appearing as one extraordinarily bright star to the naked eye. If not a great conjunction, the idea of a comet is another population notion, which has also shown up in Romanesque nativity art.
Several comets have been dubbed the "Christmas Comet." The title seems to come and go depending on when they pass closest to our planet. If it's Christmas time, then writers aptly prescribe the name for that year. In particular, three comets have been the brightest and most media-covered. They are the Comet Lovejoy (2011), Comet McNaught (2018), and the most recent Comet Leonard (2021). If you've seen a comet or shooting star, then you probably know they move across the sky in a flash. I have difficulty accepting that a comet led the Magi to their destination since their journey likely took months, if not years.
Although Earth, Venus, and Saturn are all mentioned in the Old Testament, no planets are mentioned in the New Testament. Not even where the Star of Bethlehem gets its notoriety, the book of Matthew. Because there are warranted timeline debates from Jesus's birth to the time the Magi arrived, I doubt that we'll never truly know. Regardless, I enjoy learning as I follow my curiosities along the way. By now, you must know that the answer to the title question is, Saturn 🪐.
If you plan on getting a telescope this Christmas, then plan to find yourself in a Dark Sky Community on Christmas day. Why? Because you'll be able to see Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury, and Mars all on December 25th.
If you’d like to continue reading on related topics, check out these articles:
6 Objects to Observe on Christmas Day https://www.skyatnightmagazine.com/advice/skills/christmas-night-astronomy-25-december/
More about the Christmas Star
Midwinter Holiday Origins
Christmas Comet Leonard
When Jesus Was Born - The Celestial Signs