Early Christmas morning: Look up! A full moon, and Orion bright in the sky
This December 25, our gift from Mother Nature will be a big, bright full moon. This final full moon of the year, traditionally known as the Cold Moon, won't occur again on Christmas until 2034, according to NASA. Even luckier for us here in Maine, this full moon will be at its "fullest" just after 6 a.m., which will feel like a perfectly reasonable time of day for those of you typically awakened by your children at 4:30 a.m. on Christmas morning.
The waxing moon in these days leading up to Christmas helped us cope with the increasing darkness as we approached the Winter Solstice, the first day of winter, and experienced the year's longest nights.
The Farmer's Almanac tells us that some Native American tribes referred to this month's full moon as the Long Nights Moon. Those of us who groan as the sky begins to darken now by 4 in the afternoon will be thankful for the extra nighttime illumination.
This year's Winter Solstice, a phenomenon justly celebrated by light-loving cultures all over the world, occured in Maine just before midnight on December 21. Interestingly, Earth is closest to the Sun in its orbit right about now. But remember, our planet is on a tilted axis. We in the Northern Hemisphere are currently turned away from the Sun: thus, it's winter here, but summer in the Southern Hemisphere.
With snow on the ground, the full moon's light would also add a festive dimension of silvery beauty to the landscape for the holidays. Unfortunately, according to meteorologist Keith Carson, formerly of Maine, the forecast does not show us getting a white Christmas.
In addition to the luminous moon, the true king of December's night sky is the constellation Orion. In Greek myth, Orion was a hunter-giant who was killed by a scorpion (reasons why vary, but include attempted rape and over-hunting), after which both man and beast were immortalized in the sky. The shape of a human figure is readily discerned from the stars that make up Orion, and many ancient cultures saw them in this way.
Most people recognize the three stars that make up Orion's belt. This distinctive asterism was the first set of stars that I learned to name as a child after the Big Dipper. It has been seen as many things around the world: golden grains or walnuts to ancient Arabic astronomers; dancing young men to native Australians; lost hunters in Alaskan Inuit stories; mountain sheep to the Northern Paiutes; the resting place of the soul of Osiris, Egyptian god of the underworld and rebirth; and, most appropriate for the Christian holiday cycle, three wise men or kings in some early European traditions.
For astronomy buffs, the coolest thing about Orion's belt is probably the nebula found below it, in the middle of Orion's hanging sword. The Great Nebula M42 is a highly visible cloudy cluster containing some of the youngest stars in the galaxy.
Orion's two brightest stars are Rigel and Betelgeuse. Rigel, a blue-white supergiant that is one of the brightest stars visible in our sky, marks Orion's left knee. Betelgeuse, Orion's right shoulder, is also one of the top ten brightest stars we see. Betelgeuse is an especially dramatic star, as stars go. The dying red supergiant is about 20 times bigger than the Sun, and people spend a lot of time predicting when it will explode. Latest guess: in about 100, 000 years, and don't worry, the supernova will be much too far away to hurt us. Ancient astrologers believed Betelgeuse portended success in war (as with red stars in general) and wealth. Those who find this constellation a bit too overwhelming masculine can take some satisfaction in the fact that the star marking Orion's left shoulder — the third corner of the rectangle also framed by Rigel and Betelgeuse — is Bellatrix, the woman warrior.
No matter what your faith or what holidays you celebrate, the December sky is full of light and legend, linking us to ancestors down the line of history and prehistory who praised this same moon, grateful for its light, and sat under these same stars, making up stories to get through winter's dark and cold.
Kristen Lindquist is an amateur naturalist and published poet who lives in her hometown of Camden.