The “star of Bethlehem” or “Christmas star” is much debated by sky-watchers.
After all, bright stars don’t tend to suddenly appear in the night sky … or do they?
Anyone in the northern hemisphere going outside an hour or two after dark this week and looking to the southeast will see two very bright “stars.”
High in the south is Jupiter, shining at a magnitude of -2.50 while slightly lower down in the east it’s reddish Mars, shining at -1.75.
If you’ve noticed a “new” bright “star” in recent days or weeks, it’s probably Mars. Just last week it was at its once-every-26-months super-bright “opposition.” It remains an awesome sight.
However, now becoming visible in the southwest—also just after dark—is Venus. It’s shining at a whopping -3.8 magnitude—making it the brightest object seen from Earth besides the Sun and Moon. It’s actually very hard to see at the moment, but as we get closer to Christmas it will rise a little higher into a slightly darker twilight sky.
By Christmas, Venus will be slightly easier to see as it rises higher into the early evening night sky. Was it the “Christmas star?”
The ancient legend of a star that is said to have appeared in the sky at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ has been speculated about for many centuries.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, it supposedly led three men to Christ (something celebrated at Epiphany on January 6 in Western Christianity), so was it supernatural?
Of course it wasn’t. There’s no such thing.
So what was it?
The supposed uniqueness of the star’s brightness makes it possible it was a conjunction of two planets, possibly Saturn and Jupiter, which appeared very close to each other in the sky three times in the year 7 BC. That’s according to Johannes Kepler, the 17th century German astronomer, who also laid down the laws of planetary motion.
Saturn and Jupiter were visible in a similarly rare alignment just before December 25, 2020—rated as a once-in-10-lifetimes event.
Other theories link the bright event to an occultation of Jupiter by the Moon—with the reappearance of the “king of planets” especially impressive—amd a triple conjunction of Jupiter, Venus and bright star Regulus. It could also have been Halley’s Comet—which zoomed by Earth in 7 BC—or a star exploding as a bright “supernova.”
If it was anything more than an embellishment to a story, then my money is on Venus. Earth’s “sister planet” and Jupiter are the brightest planets in Earth’s sky by far, but Venus wins, capable of shining at a maximum magnitude of -4.7 to Jupiter’s -2.8.
Venus will shortly demonstrate why it is a candidate for mistaken “Star of Bethlehem” by shining very brightly—and very close to the horizon. People tend to notice bright objects when they’re just above the horizon—directly in their line of sight—much more easily than when they’re high in the night sky.
Venus will rise higher into the early evening night sky in 2023, passing close to Saturn on January 21/22, 2023.
You can get a sneak preview of Venus shining brightly by heading outside on Christmas Eve and looking to the southwest after dark (though you will need an unobstructed view of the horizon—and possibly binoculars).
This is what you’ll see—a 4%-lit slender crescent Moon, Venus and, above it, Mercury. A truly beautiful sight! But be quick because the trio will soon sink.
The origin of the “Christmas star” remains a mystery, but it’s not hard to imagine a bright planet “suddenly” becoming visible. After all, even the slow rise of Venus these coming nights will have some people driving home from work asking “what is that?!” despite it being rising higher each night for a few weeks.
There’s a reason that the rise of Venus and calls to authorities about “weird lights in the night sky”/UFOs … people don’t go outside much in winter.
When they do, they’re surprised by the incredible objects in the night sky they just hadn’t noticed before. The very same objects stargazers get to look at in awe every single clear night.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.