Was there really a Christmas Star? This week on The Storyteller's Night Sky

Dec 5, 2016


It’s December, which means it’s time for the annual discourse about whether or not there really was a Christmas Star, so here’s my “Storyteller’s Night Sky” perspective.  

For thousands of years BC, it was believed that every human being comes from a star. The Ancient Greeks had their tale of the hero Perseus, who was born from a shower of golden stars. The Romans believed that the dramatic appearance of a comet after the assassination of Julius Caesar was his soul being taken back to starry worlds.  And the great philosopher Plato described in his writings that for every star there is a soul, and for every soul, a star. All of this hails from a time when the relationship between the stars and the life cycle of human beings was considered to be much more intimate than what we think it is now.

So if we start with this idea that we each come from a star, not just that we’re made of star stuff, but that we come from an actual star, then the Christmas Star is not such an unusual idea. But which star is it?

For right now, here’s what I’ve arrived at, not an ultimate answer, but maybe just a piece of the puzzle:

Every night of the year, there’s a star that is somewhat hidden to all but the discerning star gazer: It’s the star Mu Cephei, also known as Herschel’s Garnet Star, a red supergiant that exhibits the deepest color of all the stars in the Milky Way.

Mu Cephei belongs to the constellation Cepheus, the King, and all around this star are other stars with names that mean sheep and flocks, there’s even a shepherd star in this region of the King, all familiar parts of the stories that are told about the birth of the Christ Child.

With its deep color, Mu Cephei is one of the largest stars known, though it isn’t necessarily an easy star to find. Still, the ancients knew that to correctly read the heavens for a sign was to not only look for the most obvious phenomena, but to pay attention to what lies hidden in plain view. If you go looking for Mu Cephei, you can find it overhead, on the eastern edge of the Milky Way, resting in the right hand of the King.