How, When And Where To See A Bright ‘Christmas Star’ With Your Naked Eyes


The “Star of Bethlehem is captivating story. A bright star appears in the eastern sky as Jesus Christ is born in Jerusalem and a group of wise men “follow yonder star” to worship him.

What was it? Here are some astronomical theories—some very convincing, others not so much—but there are plenty of clues in this week’s night sky that will lead you to possible sources of this enduring Christmas legend.

Here’s the astronomy behind the legend and how, when and where to find your own “Christmas Star” this week:

1. It was Venus

To me this is the most convincing theory solely because Venus is always surprisingly bright, even to experienced observers. It’s the brightest object in the sky after the Sun and Moon. It’s no coincidence that UFO sightings mushroom at times when Venus is visible low on the horizon. That time is just beginning now, with Christmas Eve offering the first practical opportunity to see Venus shining brightly.

How to find your own ‘Star of Bethlehem’

Go outside just after sunset and look to the southwest (you’ll also see Mercury). You can do this at any time for the next few months. Don’t let the fact that Venus is shining in the west instead of the east—where the “Star of Bethlehem” was said to shine‚put you off this theory. Venus is an inner planet so is only ever visible in the west just after sunset or in the east just before sunrise.

2. It was a comet

Was the “Star of Bethlehem” a passing comet? Bright comets are relatively rare—2020’s Comet NEOWISE was the first naked-eye comet in decades—as well as sporadic and unpredictable. However, there is evidence that Halley’s Comet made an appearance in the night sky around the year 12 BC. Comets are typically visible in the pre-dawn and post-sunset sky so it’s perfectly possible that a bright comet was hanging low in the eastern night sky.

How to find your own ‘Christmas Comet’

Want to test the theory? Find a pair of binoculars and go look for your own “Christmas Comet!” Although it’s relatively dim (at magnitude 8.2), a pair of 10×50 binoculars used in the northern hemisphere should be able to pick out Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) in the constellation of Corona Borealis, the “Northern Crown.” Look east before dawn. This long-period comet should reach its brightest between January 12, 2023 (its closest point to the Sun) and February 1, 2023 (its closest approach to Earth).

There’s a great finder chart for locating Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) into 2023.

3. It was the ‘Dog Star’

What’s the brightest star in the night sky? It’s Sirius, the “Dog Star,” which is currently rising in the east about an hour after dark. Could it have been the “Star of Bethlehem?” Sure—particularly if no bright planets were shining in that part of the night sky, which is perfectly possible. But stars are fixed, they don’t move in a human lifetime, so if Sirius was the wise men’s “Star of Bethlehem” than they can’t have been very wise …

How to find Sirius

Sirius is easy to find. First, find the three star of Orion’s Belt, which are now visible in the east after dark. Trace those three stars down towards the horizon and you’ll come to a very bright star—Sirius. It’s 8.7 light-years distant.

4. It was a conjunction of planets

That the “Star of Bethlehem” was an alignment of planets is another popular theory. Remember the “Christmas Star” from 2020 when Saturn and Jupiter aligned? Saturn isn’t actually very bright, but a close apparent pass of bright Jupiter and super-bright Venus could be the source of the “Star of Bethlehem.”

MORE FROM FORBESIn Photos: ‘Christmas Star’ Dazzles As Jupiter And Saturn Align In Best Display Since The 13th Century

Craig Chester at the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy states that in the year 2 and 3 B.C. there was were two conjunctions of Venus and Jupiter either side of three conjunctions of “the royal planet” Jupiter with bright “royal star” Regulus. This star has some astrological significance (the wise men were, after all, most likely astrologers)—it’s the star of kingship and was associated with the Lion of Judah.

5. It was a supernova

If a star did miraculously appear in the night sky at the moment of Christ’s birth then fade from view over a few weeks then a possible candidate is a supernova—an exploding star. Such events are vanishingly rare. Such an event would have a star shine brightly—possibly even in the daytime sky, too—for a number of weeks before fading. It would have been a dramatic and unnerving sight for experienced sky-watchers. However, aside from a fainter nova being recorded by Chinese and Korean astronomers as having appeared in 5 B.C. there’s no evidence for a supernova around that time—and no obvious supernova remnant.

Or could the Star of Bethlehem truly have been a miracle? There are many candidates for the source, but the the Star of Bethlehem features in the Gospel of Matthew, which was written around 80 A.D. long after any of these events occurred, if they even did.

If you truly want to see a miracle, go outside and look up. The night sky is full of them—including us.

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.



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