Christmas comet graces our sky


Many people dream of a white Christmas, but I have never felt any attraction to it. I get plenty of opportunities to see the moonlight glistening on the snow because of my backpacking habit.

I have seen “the moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,” and it does indeed give the “lustre of midday to objects below.”

But that lovely view is just as glorious on Jan. 10 as it is on Christmas Eve. And it’s even better when you haven’t spent a day dodging traffic and sliding around looking for last-minute Christmas gifts.

The most glorious experience can be had, as I have had it many times, from a snow-covered forest clearing out in the middle of nowhere, especially if you are alone with your creator or with your family and your trusty dog as your only companions.

I’m not sure of the origin of our white Christmas obsession, but I’m pretty certain that it was solidified in the American imagination by the Irving Berlin tune and its grinding repetitions in the movies “White Christmas” and “Holiday Inn” on a screen near you.

To be perfectly honest, I never much liked the movies or the tune, or even Bing Crosby, facile singer of the song.

So forget about dreaming of a white Christmas. Instead, I invite you to dream of a clear Christmas Eve.

If it’s clear tonight, bundle up, go outside, and look up. The stars of winter shine particularly bright and beautiful this time of year.

Moreover, this Christmas Eve, you have the opportunity to transport yourself to the time of the birth of Yeshua bar Yosef — Jesus, son of Joseph — who is, of course, the ostensive reason for the season.

A comet graces our sky, and a comet may be the Star of Bethlehem in the biblical book of Matthew.

That makes this Christmas a particularly appropriate time to look upward, like the Magi, for a “star” that suggests the peace and joy that Christmas has come to represent.

When the three ancient stargazers we sometimes call the Wise Men were searching for a sign of hope in troubled times, they looked to the sky.

It was common for our ancestors to do so. The sky was where the gods resided and where all earthly events, both good and evil, had their origin. It is that ancient belief that produced the art of astrology.

Almost nobody believes in astrology anymore, and that’s probably for the best. But perhaps the old fears and hopes still smolder dimly in your heart. If so, you might want to spend a few minutes this evening, as the Wise Men did 2,000 years ago, looking at the “star” that will glow low in the early-evening sky.

At about 9:30 p.m., go out and look in binoculars for Comet Wirtanen high in the southern sky. Tonight, it is located near the star Capella in the constellation Auriga, the Charioteer. You’ll find a finder chart for it at

I finally got a glimpse of it a few days ago from my hazy, suburban sky. Like most comets, it has a bright central core surrounded by a fainter, fuzzier halo, called its “coma.” I saw no sign of a tail.

Wirtanen is supposed to be visible to the unaided eye right now, and it might be from a dark, rural location. From my front yard, I needed binoculars to see it. It was a fairly easy find, even with the moon’s glow obscuring the view somewhat. Just scan around Capella until you see the fuzzy star.

If it’s cloudy, don’t despair. The comet will still be visible for a few days or weeks. Comets are woefully unpredictable. However, you’ll need to consult the finder chart mentioned above to find where it is against the starry background as it makes its rapid way through the solar system.

As you observe it, transport yourself to two millennia ago. According to Matthew, the presence of such a new “star” in the sky prompted the Magi to believe that great and wonderful events were about to happen in on Earth.

After the birth of Jesus, they traveled to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.”

The star that the Magi saw might not have been a comet at all. Some say it was a bright planet or even the close conjunction of several planets in the sky. Others say that it was the explosion of a faint star into a supernova that could even have been briefly visible in the daytime.

Others are certain that Mathew made up the entire story. He aimed his appeal at an audience for whom the astrological significance of such an apparition would have heightened the importance of Yeshua.

No matter. Real or fictional, the symbolic import of the event remains, and a comet is as good bet as any.

The ancients called practically everything they saw in the night sky a star. The word “comet” comes from the Greek word “komētēs” meaning “hairy” or “long-haired.” A comet was a “hairy star.” That’s exactly what comets looked like to the ancients: a star with long hair streaming away from it.

We now know that comets are nothing but large chunks of ice, rock, and dust that normally inhabit the outer reaches of our solar system. When they occasionally are dislodged from their far orbits and drawn near the sun, its heat changes some of the ice into a mist that streams away from the sun as a glorious tail that can stretch halfway across the sky.

Our ancient ancestors generally saw the sky as unchanging and predictable. When a new star (especially a hairy one) appeared, it was said to portend momentous events of great good or great evil.

Comets often move quickly against the starry background. As the Wise Men traveled toward Judea, perhaps this comet, which they had first seen low in the early morning sky, rose higher every night until it was directly overhead:

“Lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

So many problems can inhibit the view of the nighttime sky. A cloudy sky may obscure the view. The comet may have faded. The ever-present problem of light pollution has spoiled many a crystal-clear night.

In that case, if the sky is relatively clear, go inside, take a “long winter’s nap” and arise before sunset.

As the night sky fades on Christmas morning, you can go back outside and watch the sunrise.

The end of the dark night and the beginning of the day has always been a symbol of hope, even in the darkest times, and these times seem darker than most.

Thus, I invite you to gaze at the reddening sky and bask in its beauty. I invite you to think, as I will think, as I always think, some version of the following words, “I am alive this day for yet another day. I am awake. I am aware of this beauty. May it be so for yet another sunrise and for many sunrises yet to come. But if it is my last sunrise, it is enough to have this moment of perfect beauty, this glorious moment.”

May it be so in your lives as well, patient readers. And during this holiday season, may you all, like the Magi of old, rejoice “exceedingly and with great joy.”

By Tom Burns


Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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