Kristen Lindquist: Sky-watching during the holiday season
If you're finding that all you want is more light this time of year — with strings of lights around your house and even the outside hedges and candles in every window — you're not alone. Around the northern hemisphere, holidays and festivities celebrated with candles and lots of twinkling lights abound as our nights grow longer and longer. Most of the month is one long darkening until the longest night of the year, on the Winter Solstice. This year the Solstice officially occurred here in Maine at 5:44 a.m. today, December 21.
The word "solstice" originates from the Latin for "sun standing" or "sun stopped" and refers to the way the sun seems to pause at its lowest point above the horizon on that day (or highest point, on the Summer Solstice). On the Winter Solstice, the sun is at its southernmost point from the equator; this is considered the first day of winter in the northern hemisphere. The sun then slowly boomerangs back from this nadir, resulting in longer days and growing light until the Summer Solstice.
Traditionally known as Yule in many cultures, the Solstice may be celebrated by burning a Yule log. On a recent visit to Quebec City my husband and I noticed in pastry shops there many delectable dessert versions of the Yule log, the bûche de Noël, a festively decorated rolled chocolate cake. Lacking a fireplace in which to burn a Yule log, we will happily celebrate the Solstice with the chocolate version instead.
In addition to the beloved star shining down on us from the top of Mount Battie, some of our brightest planets will be helping to illuminate the darkness this month. After sunset, look for Venus, the Evening Star, glowing in the southwestern sky like a white beacon above the horizon. As the month progresses, Venus will soar higher in the evening sky and increase slightly in magnitude, as well: the true celestial Queen of the Night.
Mars hovers above and to the left of Venus in early evening, setting at about 9:30 p.m. each night. Unlike Venus, the red planet will dim as the month progresses, still bright compared to most stars but losing the prominence in the sky that it held this summer.
Through December Mars draws closer and closer to Venus, with the two only 12 degrees apart on New Year's Eve. In Roman mythology, Venus, the goddess of love, and Mars, the god of war, were lovers. So as the year draws to a close, you can imagine these orbs to be the divine couple approaching one another in a slow celestial dance, with the goddess's increasing radiance serving to represent the power of love and light over conflict.
Another dominant presence in the December sky is the constellation Orion the Hunter, which rises now in early evening and looms large overhead during these long winter nights. Orion's Belt comprises three stars — Mintaka, Alnitak, and Alnilam — that appear to form a tight line across the hunter's "body." This asterism has been called the Three Wisemen in some Christian cultures, perhaps because of the constellation's timely reappearance in the night sky during the Christmas season.
While December's mid-month full moon (known by some as the Long Nights Moon) effectively outshined the Geminid meteor shower this year, sky watchers and romantics will get another chance to wish on a "falling star" in the week leading up to Christmas Eve. The Ursid meteor shower peaks around December 23, with most meteors seeming to originate in the vicinity of the easily located Big and Little Dippers (a.k.a. Ursa Major and Minor). You can think of it as a heavenly fireworks show in celebration of the Solstice. Averaging only about ten meteors per hour at its peak, the Ursids are usually less dramatic than the Geminids, but they will at least be more visible this time around thanks to the waning moon.
The best time to watch for the "shooting stars" is after midnight, which can be prohibitive during this frigid time of year. However, if you just happen to be out watching the night sky during the wee hours before dawn on December 22, you might catch the bright planet Jupiter in the eastern sky, just a few degrees above the waning crescent moon. The next morning Jupiter will be right below the moon.
Jupiter should still be readily visible by Santa Claus as his sleigh makes its way across the Northeast during the pre-dawn hours of Christmas Eve. Those interested in tracking Santa on his flight can do so with the help of NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), at www.noradsanta.org/.
Ho ho ho! Happy sky-watching to all this holiday season!
Kristen Lindquist is an amateur naturalist and published poet who lives in her hometown of Camden.