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Looking Back: December 1979

Most youngsters have a memory of staring at the night sky, listening to your mum or dad pointing out the stars that make up ‘the Great Bear’ or ‘Orion’ with his distinctive belt of stars.

If you’re a bit of a stargazer, especially on these bitterly cold, clear winter nights, you might enjoy this short piece by John M’Murtrie, from December 1979.

The Sky At Christmas

By John M’Murtrie


VENUS, the brightest of the planets, has again made a welcome return to the south-west area of the early evening sky and as night follows night is increasing in brilliance as if to herald the coming of Christmas. On the evenings just before Christmas Day, if conditions are favourable, an interesting companionship between the two brightest objects of the night sky will be unfolded – and notably so on the evening of December 21 when as darkness falls the slender crescent of the new moon will be seen losing pace at a slightly higher level than Venus which will set just shortly before its brighter companion.

The evening presence of the planet Venus – and it should be remembered that ‘planet’ is equivalent to ‘wanderer’ – means, of course, that its dropped light form should be visible in daylight due south by the keen eyes observer or to the person with binoculars approximately due south shortly after two o’clock in the afternoon. This is just the circumstance which gives rise to the old controversy as to whether Venus was the bright star which guided the shepherds of old to the birthplace of Christ with its message: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men.”

Certain astronomers have calculated – as they can do with an element of precision and accuracy which amazes the man in the street – that Venus could not have been the Star of Bethlehem, but other opinions favour a different point of view – that if the Star of Bethlehem was not Venus, then what other heavenly body could have shone with such brilliance other than Venus? In any case, whatever the opinion, Venus shining with increasing brilliance on the later December evenings this year will bring a special sense of realism to the Christmas scene.

In contrast, all the other normally easily identified planets – Jupiter, Mars and Saturn – will be in the morning sky at Christmas this year and will be making their own modest contributions to the seasonal atmosphere.

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