What Was the Christmas Star? Can You Spot the Phenomenon Again This Year?

Christmas is a time for tradition, as well as celebration.

For Christians, December 25 is most strongly associated with the birth of Christ, with modern-day nativity scenes marked by the angel Gabriel's arrival, the birth of Christ in a stable, as well as kings and shepherds bearing gifts.

But one of the most puzzling aspects of the story has long mystified scholars—the Christmas star, also known as the Star of Bethlehem. This has resulted in astronomers over hundreds of years offering several scientific explanations for the Christmas star.

Dr. Daniel Brown, associate professor in astronomy at Nottingham Trent University, suggests the so-called celestial phenomenon is likely part Biblical interpretation and part embellishment.

He told Newsweek: "The star of Bethlehem is part of the traditional Christian Christmas story throughout the world. But did these events happen in some form or manner and specifically did the star of Bethlehem actually exist? This is a question that astronomers have asked themselves since the times of Johannes Kepler in 1614 and we might now have come to a possible conclusion."

The story of the Star of Bethlehem only appears in the New Testament's Book of Matthew, while other aspects of the nativity appear in Luke.

The gospel of Matthew states a bright star sparkled in the eastern sky when Jesus was born, famously seen by a group of wise men. These biblical "Magi," sometimes called kings, are now a key component of school nativity plays.

Christmas Star
For Christians, December 25 is most strongly associated with the birth of Christ m-gucci/Getty Images

Brown said: "The key information can be drawn from the gospel of Matthew, stating that King Herodes was alive, wise men arrived from the east, they saw a star in the East, they went first to Jerusalem and no one in Judea actually noticed or recorded this."

He added astronomers have long proposed many different, yet ultimately unsatisfactory, candidates as being responsible for this event.

He said: "It could be comets, like Halley's Comet. It could maybe be an exploding star known as a supernova observed. But these objects all fall short, as they would have been seen by others in Judea.

"They would seemingly move through the sky over the night so not really a good sign to follow. Also, if you are coming from the east and following something in the east, it would surely go west not east. So these objects can't really be an explanation."

Renowned 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler even proposed an astrological dimension as a solution, claiming a close meeting between Jupiter and Saturn happening several times—known as a rare triple conjunction—could be the answer.

star of Bethlehem
One of the most puzzling aspects of the nativity story has long puzzled scholars—the Christmas star, also known as the Star of Bethlehem Getty Images

A conjunction is said to happen when two astronomical objects pass each other due to their movement along the direction of the stars' daily rotation.

Because gas giant Jupiter orbits the Sun every 11.9 years while Saturn's orbit takes 29.5 years, a conjunction between the two—called a "great conjunction" due to its rarity—occurs roughly every 20 years.

However, Brown dismissed Kepler's idea, saying: "We have to include an astrological dimension."

He then added how astronomer Dr. Michael Molnar, former manager of the physics instructional labs at Rutgers, has convincingly argued the star that led the Magi to Bethlehem was actually the moon eclipsing the planet Jupiter.

Brown said: "M Molnar proposed in 1999 that the wise men from the east were indeed looking at the birth horoscopes and found one that had very strong and rare signs of a possible king.

"This included Jupiter in the star sign of Aries, representing Judea. The key I find is that Jupiter joined this kingly meeting when appearing for the first time in the season and visible briefly first in the East.

"These facts married together explain amazingly well how no one in Judea, not interested in astrology, would have noticed and why the wise men travelled to Jerusalem as well as to the west."