Merry Christmas! There are many things we can be thankful for, one being that the Wise Men had clear night skies on their way to Bethlehem. Religious-themed Christmas cards show a nice starry sky with one very bright star dominating the scene.

Merry Christmas! There are many things we can be thankful for, one being that the Wise Men had clear night skies on their way to Bethlehem. Religious-themed Christmas cards show a nice starry sky with one very bright star dominating the scene.

Theories about the Christmas star fall into two main groups, depending on your point of view: A) It is only a nice story or B) It is true? Possibility B then leads to the question, what was the Christmas star?

Some say it was a miraculous sign that would best fit the Biblical narrative that the star moved and hovered over the manger. Others point to a possible supernova -- a rare exploding star that can outshine every star in the sky -- an unusually large comet or a rare conjunction of bright planets, which was known to have occurred in the general timeframe of Christ’s birth.

What's at the North Pole?

Ask almost any child in Western society about what the North Pole means to them, and you will likely hear it is the abode of one Mr. Claus; the domicile of eight or nine reindeer, an assortment of elves and Saint Nick and his family; where Kris Kringle “hangs his hat.”

We were first informed that Santa lives at the North Polar Cap by American editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902).

What would the jolly fellow see from his ice cap home when he looked up? Right at the North Pole, the North Star, or Polaris, shines straight overhead. Around the very horizon is the Celestial Equator. Night lasts six months there, so as long as the sky is clear, you would see the constellations move around you in a circle, right around a point next to the North Star.

From mid-northern latitudes in the U.S., the Big Dipper just misses the north horizon, as well as the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia, on the opposite side from the North Star. We call these constellations “circumpolar” in that they never set. Others are the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor the Little Bear), Draco the Dragon, Cepheus the King and Camelopardalis the Giraffe. From the North Pole, the entire visible sky is circumpolar!

Also visible would be the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis. This fantastic natural light show is caused by charged particles from outbursts on the sun, interacting with the atoms of Earth’s upper atmosphere and flowing along the Earth’s magnetic field that surrounds the planet. Interestingly, a compass does not necessarily point exactly to the North Pole but will be a few degrees off, depending on where you live. This is because the Earth, like an 8,000-mile-wide magnet, has a north and a south magnetic end, or pole, but is off center from the Earth’s north-south axis of spin. The North Magnetic Pole is in northern Canada. The North Pole of the axis of rotation is on the top of the globe.

Northern Lights appear regularly in a circle in the sky around the North Magnetic Pole (Southern Lights likewise appear in the south over Antarctica). On rare occasions Northern Lights move further down and we are able to see them from lower latitudes. From Santa’s North Pole, however, that “ring of fire” of Northern Lights would be off-center and not straight overhead, with the North Star in the middle.

Cold night observing tips

Six months of night would be excellent for stargazers. It is a wonder not more people move there. Observing in the deep cold, however, poses special problems, and the frigid air on either polar cap would make our occasional single-digit winter nights seem mild.

Venturing out on a cold winter night requires some endurance. Be sure to dress extra warmly; layers are important, as is a hat. Hunter’s hand- or foot-warming packets are very helpful.

If you use a reflecting telescope, one that is open at the top end, you need to set it outside perhaps an hour before you observe. The warm air inside the tube, from having been stored inside, needs a chance to flow out. If you use the telescope too soon, you will notice -- especially at higher magnifications -- that the turbulent air current will blur details. Stars will not focus sharply, and craters on the moon will shiver. How much it does this depends on the difference in air temperature, between the outside air and the air in the tube.

Then you have the difficulty of the eyepiece lens fogging over in the cold. Your head’s warmth will cause moisture in the air to fog the lens after awhile. It can help to keep the eyepiece warm when not in use, such as in a coat pocket. You can dab a lint-free cloth on the lens to remove the fog, but be careful not to scratch the small eyepiece.

Look for Orion

Around 8 p.m. on Christmas night, or any night this week in early evening, be sure to savor the glory of the bright stars of winter. These will be seen in the east-southeast at this time of night. Almost making up for the cold, an unusual serving of brilliant stars shine.

The constellation Orion is the favorite of many. If you locate nothing else, be sure to recognize Orion the Hunter. Learn it and point it out to your children and grandchildren. Show them Orion’s three stars that make up the “belt” and the several stars of the “sword” hanging off the belt. Point out fiery red Betelgeuse in the upper left from the belt, and brilliant blue-white Rigel in the lower right.

The brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, shines forth to the lower left of Orion. Above Orion is orange Aldeberan, seemingly connected to the V-shaped Hyades star cluster; off the Hyades is the compact glittering star cluster the Pleiades. Almost overhead is bright yellow Capella. Further left of Orion is the duo Pollux and Castor, both bright stars; between these and Sirius is yellow Procyon, another winter luminary.

Last quarter moon is on Dec. 27. Keep looking up!

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