December 22, 2020
Yesterday I was able to witness an 800-year event in the night sky. This was the arrival of the Christmas Star, or the proximity of Jupiter and Saturn. While this is not actually a star, the two planets are close enough together to appear as a double-planet or as shown in my picture, a single bright light. The term “Christmas Star” is applied because during 2020 this event happens in conjunction with the Winter Solstice and Christmas. “Alignments between these two planets are rather rare, occurring once every 20 years or so, but this conjunction is exceptionally rare because of how close the planets will appear to one another,” says Patrick Hartigan, a professor of physics and astronomy at Rice University. “You’d have to go all the way back to just before dawn on March 4, 1226, to see a closer alignment between these objects visible in the night sky.” Chock up another anomaly to 2020.
One of the areas I dreamed of making my expertise in graduate school was Archeoastronomy. I searched through the libraries (there was no online way back when) and read every book and paper on the subject I could find. Archeoastronomy is the study of how people in the past understood the phenomena in the sky, and how they used these phenomena in their cultures. The study uses strategies from archaeology, anthropology, astronomy, statistics and probability, and history. This worked well with my eclectic understanding of how to interpret the past (present and future?). While people have dabbled in this field for hundreds of years, it only became recognized during the 1970’s, and still struggles to be recognized as legitimate. Maybe that was another reason I liked it.
The winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere occurs usually on December 21st or 22nd and is traditionally observed at sundown on the 21st. While the winter solstice itself lasts only a moment, the term generally refers to the day on which it occurs. Traditionally, the winter solstice is seen as the middle of winter, but today many calendars see it as the beginning of winter. Since prehistory, the winter solstice has been a significant time of year and has been marked by festivals and rituals. It marked the symbolic death and rebirth of the Sun. The seasonal significance of the winter solstice is in the reversal of the gradual lengthening of nights and shortening of days. This was an important observance for people who relied on the sun to provide warmth and crops. The solstice celebration is behind why we now celebrate Christmas at the end of December.
Thoughts: One of my favorite stories from archeoastronomy concerns Chichen Itza in the Yucatán Peninsula. One of the buildings was called El Caracol (‘snail’ in Spanish), because of the spiral staircase inside the tower. This is also called the Mayan Observatory. Several teams of astronomers and archeologists used computers to define the astronomical observations that were made possible by numerous alignments of openings in the building walls. While I do not doubt the authenticity of many of these observations, the building was “restored” (read rebuilt) during the 1920’s. This is another example of why as we try to prove our point, we need to understand the facts behind what we say. Follow the science. Change is coming and it starts with you.