The sky will be wonderful for the Christmas Eve pageantry at Woodstock’s Village Green, and even more special a week later, on New Year’s. First, though, I’d like to mention briefly how the mysterious letter X applies to the heavens.
We use it in Xmas, of course; it’s a throwback to when it was considered sacrilegious to write Christ’s name. This notion came in turn from the Hebrews (and others) who believed that “God” should not be spoken aloud. The letter X eventually came to denote mystery. On maps it represented treasure; in math or in the sky it depicted an unknown. “Planet X” was the long-sought world beyond Neptune. When Pluto was found in 1930, many shifted the hunt to a new Planet X imagined to lie further still – a world that we now know is nonexistent.
Everyone’s aware of X-rays, an unnecessarily mysterious term for a section of the electromagnetic spectrum. X-rays are just a form of light, with a power intermediate between ultraviolet and gamma rays. We don’t see them for one simple reason: The Sun emits relatively few X-rays. Then our atmosphere blocks whatever X-rays do come our way, so that none occurs naturally here on Earth. Our eyes were designed to see the reflections of solar-type photons as they bounce off various surfaces around us. Since no X-rays are bouncing around, it would have been pointless for vision to be able to perceive them.
X-rays burst forth like a geyser in violent places – like in the Crab Nebula, over our heads these nights in Taurus the Bull. That supernova remnant, unseen to the naked eye, is absolutely brilliant in X-ray light, which is why astronomers call it Taurus X-1. An X-ray source – always the emblem of extreme fury – gets catalogued by its constellation followed by an X and then a number denoting its relative strength. Cygnus X-1 emits its energy from the sky’s surest black hole. Virgo X-1 is the mysterious super-massive core of the heaviest galaxy in our region of the universe. And so on.
Back to the sky: On Xmas Eve, while awaiting Santa’s arrival, look low in the west to see Venus. It’s the only bright star down there, above where the Sun set. On Kwanzaa (the 26th) the lovely Crescent Moon floats just to the right of Venus. The next night, the Moon will hover above that Evening Star: simply gorgeous. All these evenings, as full darkness envelops us, Venus quickly sets and high-up Jupiter becomes the brightest “star” throughout the night, far outshining everything else. You don’t even have to wonder what that brilliant “star” might be.
New Year’s Eve: That’s when you really ought to check out the sky as everyone is shouting and hugging. While we’re not superstitious, the geometric perfection of December 31, 2011 will be extraordinary. First, exactly at midnight, just as 2012 begins, the Moon is precisely setting, hanging on the western horizon. Brilliant Jupiter floats just above it, lighting up the low western sky. Next, follow Orion’s famous belt down and to the left to the brilliant blue-white Dog Star Sirius. At that same midnight moment it hovers at its very highest – precisely due south. And we’re still not done: Also at that moment, Mars is rising in the east. If you have an unobstructed view in that direction, you’ll easily see it as a bright (not brilliant) orange “star” a short distance below the blue star Regulus, in Leo.
The Moon and brilliant creamy Jupiter setting in the west; the blue-white Sirius (the brightest true star) due south; orange Mars rising in the east: What does it all mean? Well, astronomers naturally pooh-pooh any suggestion that star or planet configurations augur either well or badly for the world’s fortunes in 2012. Extensive computer crosschecks show no correlation between past sky configurations and major world events.
Still, people have always been aware of prominent sky patterns on ceremonial dates. Some civilizations assigned various and contradictory meanings to them. Others simply gaped with awe or fear. But few were oblivious to them. So, perhaps, this New Year’s, neither should we. It’s a curious X-factor that bonds us with an unbroken line of people through the ages.