Since we are now “officially” into the holiday season, the stores and constantly running Christmas music, blinking lights are going up, and evergreens are being cut down for arrangements in the home. And another aspect of the perennial activities is to start up the Christmas/Holiday shows at science centers, especially planetariums (or do you prefer planetaria?) When I used to be a show presenter for Abrams Planetarium, we had two shows, one for families or kids, and another for a general audience. The former would change from year to year, but the latter has been a staple at Abrams and may other places as well. It’s a great show that goes through many winter solstice traditions from around the world, though focusing on the Western world and Christmas.
As as per the tradition, there is a segment about the Star of Bethlehem. The current show, “Season of Light”, is taken from an earlier version of the show called “‘Tis the Season”, which itself has a long history going back to the earliest days of the planetariums, circa 1930s. Up until the 1980s, most of these holiday shows talked about the Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions as the likely candidate for the Star, something the Pope has recently also given credit to, but now some shows talk of the Jupiter-Venus conjunctions of 3/2 BCE. That is what can be found in the “Season of Light” show.
A quick look though the Internet shows a few more planetariums doing the same show, such as the BCC Planetarium in Florida. But that is not the only show in town. Delta College’s planetarium (a community college I attended some classes for) has not one but two shows featuring the Star, one of which is completely devoted to it. There aren’t much for details, but it sounds like one of the shows is the “Season of Light” presentation, but I am uncertain. Also uncertain in content are shows at Hylton High School in Virginia, a physics department presentation in Wisconsin, another lecture at Meridian Community College in Mississippi, the Lueninghoener Planetarium in Nebraska, and the great Adler Planetarium in Chicago. The Samford Planetarium in Alabama also seems to be presenting a diversity of views.
But that’s not all you can find. I also came across an interesting story of a young, budding astronomer, Vivian Ward, age 5. Apparently he goes to a school that includes inquiry-based STEM education, which is the awesome way to teach science. One of the presentations that Vivian had concerned the Star of Bethlehem given by Billy Hix. It looks like Hix goes for the comet hypothesis, an object noted by the Chinese in 5 BCE. On the other hand, the Burke Baker Planetarium in Texas supports the hypothesis from Michael Molnar who uses ancient astrology texts.
So you can see that the various science centers and lecturers around the country are varied in what answers are expected to be given. Though not all planetariums will be having a show this year. The Morehead Planetarium in North Carolina has upgraded the hardware, and it seems their old Christmas Star show cannot just be booted-up into the new system. I doubt they are discontinuing the show due to lack of interest, so perhaps a new Christmas Star show will replace the old version in the next few years. On the other hand, Morehead is part of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where Bart Ehrman, the agnostic Bible scholar, is employed. Is he influencing anything? I doubt it, but who knows. (If the planetarium workers read Jesus, Interrupted, they may have changed their minds.)
But that is what I have found for this year, at least as of December 3rd. You may see news stories or other blog posts by others promoting some version of the Star of Bethlehem dependent on astronomy. With the slow news cycle and being a perennial favorite, I think it’s a safe bet that you will hear something about it in the upcoming weeks.