What Was the Christmas Star?
Ever wonder about the most famous astronomical object associated with Christmas - known as the Christmas Star or The Star of Bethlehem? The star is mentioned in that most scientific of texts, The Bible, and was said to have led the three wise men to Bethlehem.
The star has become a major symbol of Christmas throughout the world, but what was it?
The Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament says of the wise men and the star: “they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.” If this verse is literally true, then the Star of Bethlehem couldn't have been any known natural phenomenon, because none move that way.
If we grant the author a little artistic license, we can consider some natural, astronomical possibilities.
Some artistic depictions of The Star of Bethlehem show it as a bright meteor or “falling star.” Although exploding meteors can be spectacular, they only last a few seconds. Such transient phenomena couldn't have lead anyone anywhere.
So it would have to have been a more significant astronomical object or event. One problem though is establishing a precise timeframe to study. The most accurate records point to the birth of Jesus taking place between 7BC and 4 BC. The date definitely wasn't December 25. There's a reference in the Bible though to shepherds out in the field “keeping watch over their flock by night”, something scholars say was likely only done in the spring when lambs were born. So the birth of Jesus was likely to have been in the spring, probably between 7BC and 4 BC.
Few astronomical records were kept back then, except by the Chinese and Koreans, who recorded Possibility Number 1 - possible comets in the skies in 5BC and 4 BC.
Possibility 2 is that the Christmas Star was a nova or supernova, a previously unseen star that suddenly brightens extraordinarily. Indeed, one such star was recorded by the Chinese in the spring of 5 BC, and was seen for more than 2 months.
Possibility 3 makes the case that the Christmas Star wasn't really a star at all, but a planet, Jupiter. Or more precisely, it was the conjunction or close meeting of Jupiter with two other planets, Saturn and Mars. Planets were “wandering stars” to the ancients, and to many they bore great astrological or mystical significance. Astronomers have proven that there was a series of such conjunctions in 6BC and 5 BC.
And they're the most convincing, provable astronomical possibilities. It seems that what exactly appeared in the sky and became known as The Christmas Star is destined to remain a mystery.
But hey, Celestial events you can be certain of this Christmas include The Ursids Meteor Shower. The shower runs annually from December 17-25. It peaks this year on the the night of the 21st and morning of the 22nd, producing up to 10 meteors per hour.