This year’s Winter Solstice will be especially memorable. Once the sun sets on the Solstice, the planets Jupiter and Saturn will align in the night sky and appear as if they are one big, and especially bright, star. If you go outside to see the conjunction shortly after sunset, you’ll probably catch Jupiter and Saturn together low on the horizon in the southwest corner of the sky.
Media is hailing this conjunction as a “Christmas Star,” but it’s not occurring on Christmas, it’s very clearly happening during the Winter Solstice, December 21 this year. Some outlets are even calling this event the “Bethlehem Star” or “Star of Bethlehem” which is even more irritating. This is a worldwide celestial event, not something limited to one city in Israel. It’s probably not worth getting mad about, but I do find it a bit irritating.
I shouldn’t be surprised by this event being labeled a “Christmas Star,” Christians have been looking (in vain) for the Star of Bethlehem since the European Renaissance . The Christmas Star or Star of Bethlehem is one of the more miraculous parts of the Jesus Birth Narrative, and is said to have guided the magi (or Three Wise Men) to the site of Jesus’s birth. Once the star fulfilled its purpose, it then disappeared from the night sky.
For many centuries the most common explanation for the Star was a comet, often the famous Haley’s Comet. Haley’s Comet did pass by Earth in the year 12 BCE, but comets were genuinely seen as bad omens at the time of the Roman Empire, and the dates don’t quite add up either.
The conjunction of various stars and planets has also been suggested as a possible origin story for the Star of Bethlehem. Most conjunctions aren’t like the one we will experience on the night of the 21st, stars and planets simply being near one another are enough to label the event a conjunction; the stars or planets involved do not necessarily have to overlap. I think this means it’s less likely that most of these occurrences would be called a “star,” but meaning and context are often lost in translation.
There were several conjunctions involving Jupiter and Saturn in the year 7 BCE. None of them though had quite the same amount of overlap that we will see on December 21. If your Christian friends tell you this year’s conjunction is the Star of Bethlehem they might look to the 7 BCE conjunctions as proof. However, none of those events occurred near Christmas or Epiphany (January 6, the traditional date of the magi’s visitation). In addition,most scholars date the birth of Jesus as occurring sometime between 6 and 4 BCE.
All of the conjunctions between Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BCE occurred in and around the constellation Pisces. Given Jesus’s association with fish, he was called a “fisher of men,” this explanation is at least symbolically interesting. There have been attempts to link the Star of Bethlehem with other astrological events over the centuries, and all have met with limited to zero success.
Conjunctions involving Jupiter and the star Regulus and Venus and Jupiter have also been offered as explanations for the Star. My favorite explanation is some sort of supernova, but that sort of celestial phenomena would have been commented on by others. The only appearance the Star of Bethlehem makes in the written record is in the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew, which was written over seventy years after Jesus was born. Not particularly reliable.
Much more likely is that the Star of Bethlehem is a piece of mythology and never existed, which is another reason for calling Monday’s event what it actually is, a Solstice Star.
A small portion of this was excerpted and adapted from Llewellyn’s Little Book of Yule.