The Star of Bethlehem
Planetariums often draw Christmas-season audiences by presenting programs built around theories about what the star of Bethlehem may have been if it was anything other than a story made up by some early disciples of Jesus. Amateur astronomer Susan S. Carroll, who has developed an extensive Web page about the star of Bethlehem, says that, although the star is mentioned only once in the Bible (in the Book of Matthew), it was likely “a genuine astronomical occurrence.”
Has Christmas always been celebrated in the United States?
No. Christmas was suppressed in Puritan New England and in Presbyterian Scotland as late as the nineteenth century. Both strict Puritans (later known as Congregationalists), in New England, and Presbyterian Covenanters in Scotland began as Calvinist denominations.
The science of astronomy studies observable events in the universe, and if the star came and went just for the Magi (the Greek word translated as “wise men” in the King James Version of Matthew's Gospel), there's nothing left to investigate or study. If we accept the ancient definition of astrology as “interpreting events in the heavens” rather than the contemporary meaning of “reading horoscopes,” the Wise Men must have been astrologers, prescientific stargazers. In their era, before the advent of astronomy as a discrete science, they can be considered the closest thing then available to scientific observers of the heavens.
Astroarchaeology, also known as archaeoastronomy, is the study of astronomy as it was practiced in ancient times, using archaeological evidence such as Stonehenge or the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Astroarchaeologist John Charles Webb, Jr., theorizes that the Magi were the only stargazers who could see (or “discern”) the star of Bethlehem, because they found it through their ancient and advanced astrological knowledge (represented, for example, by the great pyramids of Egypt, Stonehenge, and other ancient evidences of astrological knowledge that have been lost to modern science).
Unlike most astronomers' speculations on what the star of Bethlehem was, Webb rules out an alignment of several planets, appearing as a great star, as the explanation. He claims that King Herod, undoubtedly served by stargazers of his own, seemed to be unaware of any special star when the Magi brought it to his attention. According to Webb's interpretation, there must have been a representation of the event visible in the heavens to the highly trained astrological eye, because Matthew says, “the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was” (Matthew 2:9b).
Year of Jesus' Birth
Webb's charting theorizes that the star appeared on March 2, in the year 5 B.C. Other scholars had long ago concluded that the calendars put the time of Christ's birth (A.D. 0) as about five years too late, based on historical evidence for the date of King Herod's death. Earlier attempts to establish the birthdate of Jesus had concluded that it most likely occurred in the spring, but the church — though not denying the evidence — rejected that date for the Nativity Feast because it would have been too close to Easter, or the Pascal Feast.
One reason the church may have chosen December 25 for the Nativity Feast is that it was the first day after the winter solstice on which the lengthening of days could be discerned. Thus, pagans celebrated it as the rebirth day of the sun. Some speculate that even long before there was an official widely observed Nativity Feast, Christians had begun reinterpreting the pagan “Sun Festival” in a Christian perspective as the birthday of the Sun of Righteousness, one of the prophetic names for the Messiah that appears in the Old Testament. As it is written in Malachi 4:2: “But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall.”
St. Nicholas was bishop of Myra, in what is now Turkey, in the fourth century. His legendary generosity toward poor children led to his saint's day, December 7, becoming a day for giving gifts to children. He had no direct connection with Christmas until a poem about him by divinity schoolteacher Clement Clark Moore became a seasonal favorite.