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Farmers Almanac
The 2014 Farmers Almanac
Farmers' Almanac

The Christmas Sky

The Christmas Sky

The Yuletide evening sky is especially rewarding now. The eastern sky is filled with brilliant stars — sort of a celestial Christmas tree. Distinctive groupings of stars forming part of the recognized constellation outlines, or lying within their boundaries, are known as asterisms. Ranging in size from sprawling naked eye figures to minute stellar settings, they are found in every quarter of the sky and at all seasons of the year. The larger asterisms — ones like the Big Dipper in Ursa Major and the Great Square of Pegasus — are often better known than their host constellations. One of the most famous is in the northwest these frosty evenings.

The Northern Cross
Originally known simply as the “Bird” in ancient times, without any indication of what sort of bird it was supposed to represent, it later became the constellation Cygnus, the Swan. But the brightest six stars of Cygnus compose an asterism more popularly called the Northern Cross. Bright Deneb decorates the top of the Cross. Albereo, at the foot of the Cross, is really a pair of stars of beautifully contrasting colors: a third magnitude orange star and its fifth magnitude blue companion are clearly visible in even a low power telescope. While usually regarded as a summertime pattern, the Cross is best oriented for viewing now, appearing to stand majestically upright on the northwest horizon at around 8:30 p.m. local time, forming an appropriate Christmas symbol. Furthermore, just before dawn on Easter morning the cross lies on its side in the eastern sky.

The Christmas Package
Look over toward the southeast part of the sky at around the same time. Can you see a large package in the sky, tied with a pretty bow across the middle? Four bright stars outline the package, while three close together and in a straight line make up the decorative bow.

Now you can see how our modern imagination might work, but tradition tells us that those seven stars formed a mighty hunter called Orion, the most brilliant of the constellations and visible from every inhabited part of the Earth. Two stars mark his shoulders, two more his knees and three his belt.

All agree that he was the mightiest hunter in the world and he is always pictured in the stars with his club upraised in his right hand. Hanging from his upraised left hand is the skin of a great lion he has killed and which he is brandishing in the face of Taurus, the Bull, who is charging down upon him.

The Heavenly Manger
The legendary French astronomer Nicolas Camille Flammarion (1842-1925) referred to the three belt stars of Orion as “The Three Kings.” And if we were to consider these three stars as representing the Magi, then not too far away, to the east, within the faint zodiacal constellation of Cancer, is the star cluster known as Preasepe, the Manger.

A manger is defined as a trough or open box in which feed for horses or cattle is placed. But the Book of St. Luke also tells us that the baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes was set down in a manger because there was no room at the Inn. In our current Christmas week evening sky, Preasepe represents the manger where Christ was born.

In the sky, the constellation of Cancer is practically an empty space in the sky, positioned between the Twin Stars (Pollux and Castor) of Gemini and the Sickle of Leo. It’s completely devoid of any bright stars and would probably not even be considered a constellation at all were not for the fact that there had to be a sign of the Zodiac between Gemini and Leo.

In the middle of Cancer are two stars called the Aselli (“donkeys”) that are feeding from the manger; Asselus Borealis and Asselus Australis bracket Preasepe to the north and south, respectively. To the unaided eye the manger appears as a soft, fuzzy patch or dim glow. But in good binoculars and low-power telescopes, it is a beautiful object to behold, appearing to contain a splattering of several dozen stars. Using his crude telescope, Galileo wrote in 1610 of seeing Preasepe not as one fuzzy star, but as “… a mass of more than 40 small stars.”

The Christmas “Star”
Look toward the southwest sky right after sunset and you’ll see a dazzling silvery “star” — almost like a modern day Star of Bethlehem, shining like a lantern with a steady glow. It’s not a star, however, but the planet that can come closest to us and is the one closest in size to ours — Venus. By Christmas it is dropping rapidly into the twilight glow, and, gaining speed will vanish from our evening sky during the first half of January. And here is graphic evidence that this planet is swinging nearer to us in its orbit and showing us more of its night side: A low-power telescope or even good binoculars will show Venus waning in phase during December from a thick crescent to a much longer, very thin sliver. A steady mounting for the binoculars can make all the difference, or even just bracing them against the side of a tree.

Telescope Targets
Lastly, for those who receive a telescope for a holiday gift, along with Venus, there are two other splendid planetary targets to gaze at. That very bright “star” that you notice at day’s end in December, glowing low above the east-northeast horizon right after sundown is Jupiter; a superb telescopic showpiece with clouds bands crossing its disk, as well as its retinue of four large moons.

And lastly, in the predawn morning sky is “the lord of the rings,” Saturn, which during this holiday season rises above the east-southeast horizon around 4 a.m. local time. A telescope magnifying 30-power or more will reveal Saturn’s famous rings, now tilted almost 22-degrees to our line of sight.

3 comments

1 barbara stewart { 12.25.13 at 10:13 am }

So Amazing to see such beautiful handywork from GOD!!!!!!!!!!!!

2 Teri Campisi { 12.23.13 at 2:12 pm }

Very interesting! I love learning new things. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone!

3 Jim Johnson { 12.23.13 at 11:54 am }

Fantastic article. I found out new things about the night sky that I did not know before. Thank you and Merry Christmas!

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