Many Christmas cards and other Christmas art feature a brilliant Bethlehem star, also a favorite tree topper.
This celestial icon stems from the Bible’s Christmas story in Matthew 2:2, where a group of foreigners come looking for a new king: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
In 2020, social media and news outlets have been buzzing about a "Christmas star," set to occur on Dec. 21.
Many Christian websites are celebrating the phenomenon, when, according to Astronomy.com, Jupiter and Saturn will appear very close to each other in Earth’s sky. So close, they’ll look like a double planet. The two planets will appear less than a fifth of the moon’s width apart. Known as a Great Conjunction, it hasn’t been seen since 1226, and it won't happen again until 2080.
Conjunctions are common, even between Jupiter and Saturn — it happened in May 2000. But having them seem to pair up is rare.
The 2020 conjunction when the planets will appear to be almost the same size — Saturn is actually slightly smaller than Jupiter — can be seen from Dec. 16-25, but Dec. 21 is when the planets will appear almost to merge in the night sky.
You can best see the conjunction between just before dusk and about 20 minutes after dark. You don't need any special equipment, although a telescope or binoculars will help. Zooming in will show four of Jupiter’s moons and Saturn’s rings. Try to find a place without tall trees, buildings and bright lights.
Here are NASA's tips on how to see it:
- Find a spot with an unobstructed view of the sky, such as a field or park. Jupiter and Saturn are bright, so they can be seen even from most cities.
- An hour after sunset, look to the southwestern sky. Jupiter will look like a bright star and be easily visible. Saturn will be slightly fainter and will appear slightly above and to the left of Jupiter until December 21, when Jupiter will overtake it and they will reverse positions in the sky.
- The planets can be seen with the unaided eye, but if you have binoculars or a small telescope, you may be able to see Jupiter’s four large moons orbiting the giant planet.
So why are Christians embracing the idea so fervently? Is it just the date?
Back to the Bible story. Those foreigners seeking a newborn king are known as the Magi or wise men. They likely were Zoroastrians, a religious group that is very small today. In New Testament times, they lived near Persia.
What the Magi actually saw has long been debated. The Bible does not tell us what this special star was.
The Magi practiced astronomy and astrology, studying the stars and learning their patterns, and using that information to predict the future. So people look for astronomical events, but also consider what the astrological meanings are.
Some people think the star was a bright star — a comet or a nova. Incidents that could have been comets or novas were seen in 4 B.C. and 5 B.C. Also, Halley’s comet would have been seen around 11 B.C. or 12 B.C. Others think it was an eclipse. Several happened around the time of Jesus’ birth.
Many people suggest that the star was a planetary conjunction, similar to what is happening in 2020. One theory suggests that a planet appeared to travel backward for several nights in a row. In 7 B.C., there was a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. The two planets aligned in the constellation Pisces in May, September and December. Jupiter was known as "planet of kings" and Saturn was known as "protector of Jews."
Another planetary movement was suggested by former Rutgers astronomer Michael Molnar. He thinks Jupiter aligned with Aries on April 17, 6 B.C., a rare occurrence, coupled with another rare event, a lunar eclipse of Jupiter. Jupiter moved across the sky and appeared to stop over Bethlehem, Jesus’ birthplace. Molnar found a coin from Antioch that he feels shows that Aries was associated with Judea and the Jews. Jupiter was considered the royal planet — its actions predicted the fate of kings.
Sources: astronomy.com/news/2020/12/jupiter-and-saturn-will-form-rare-christmas-star-on-winter-solstice; www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/12/03/2020-great-conjunction-rare-christmas-star-jupiter-saturn-align/3808185001/; www.britannica.com/event/Star-of-Bethlehem-celestial-phenomenon; www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1999/12/25/mystery-of-the-magis-star/438fad7c-9f6d-46fa-9e5e-e47f89b20da1/; www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/december/o-subtle-star-of-bethlehem.html