‘Tis the season yet again, and snow has finally begun to fall in New England. The holidays are upon us, and the skies have been filled with celestial wonders. Last week the Geminid meteor shower came, with meteors appearing out of the constellation of the twins about once a minute. Just the other night we had the close approach of the brightest comet of the year, 46P/Wirtanen. A beautiful sight… if you can see it. I had the wonderful luck of thick cloud-cover for both the peak of the Geminids and for 46P’s best viewing date. However, many others have taken lovely photos of the comet, including this one (link here):
As the image makes it out, the comet here is a tree topper, and very often you will find a star atop a Christmas Tree. This tradition of the stellar tree topper goes back perhaps only to the 19th century as it is first mentioned in a story by Hans Christian Andersen, The Fir Tree (1844). This year, the comet has also been called a Christmas Comet as it is close to the holiday.
It is also this time of year that people wonder if a comet or anything else in the sky was the Star of Bethlehem, the light that somehow sent wise men across the Middle East to worship a babe in a manger. This is not merely a story of the birth of Jesus, but it is now a story of how science and religion fit together. Every year, planetaria around the United States and even the world present ideas of what the Star might have been, a tradition that began in the 1930s and has yet to stop. The candidates are presented, and sometimes a best guess is provided in holiday shows, TV specials, or sermons to the devout. But every year, what does get passed out as a part of the figgy pudding and gift-wrapped surprises is questionable history and failed theology.
Several years ago, I published one of the very few books out there that critically examines the alleged science behind the Star of Bethlehem, and using primary sources, philological analysis, and expert consensus in numerous areas, I showed how all of the attempts to explain the Star with astronomy or astrology are deeply erroneous. This year, another round of promulgations of the same tired ideas will be trotted out, and they are just as flawed as when I first began to investigate the attempt to explain the story with science.
However, the real, scientific explanations of the Star are not done by the astronomers. We can show, with rigorous analysis and use of evidence, that the Star was no comet, nova, or planetary alignment. Knowing what all of those things are, how they are alleged to fit the story of the Nativity, and what is wrong with those ideas and the very approach are all discussed in my book, The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View. If you haven’t already, pick up a copy or give it to a friend, enemy, or random person on the street so we can all learn a little more science, and little more history, and a little more critical thinking as we explore the time of year where we celebrate the season of merry myths.