Was the Star of Bethlehem a Real Celestial Phenomenon Spotted by the Three Wise Men?

The star atop the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center in New York. Mike Segar/Reuters

On top of most Christmas trees sits a star, a symbol that plays a pretty important role in the story celebrated on the holiday.

Although, according to Smithsonian, the Star of Bethlehem appears just once in the New Testament, it is what leads the Three Wise Men on their journey to the baby Jesus.

According to EarthSky, some depictions of the Star of Bethlehem take a little license. They show a streak of light, something more like a comet than an actual star. In English, the phrase "shooting star" actually refers to a meteorite, a piece of cosmic dust that appears as a bright streak of light as it burns up upon entering Earth's atmosphere (although that sentence-long name doesn't sound as catchy).

Faisal Mahmood/Reuters

Although one could imagine the Three Wise Men saw such a shooting star, as Smithsonian points out, they don't last very long, so there wouldn't be much to guide them.

Other potential explanations include the possibility that they followed the planet Jupiter. But as EarthSky reports, finding out what the sky looked like on the night Jesus was born is tricky business because he almost certainly wasn't born on December 25 at the beginning of the common era.

Trying to match every detail in the Bible to an object from history takes for granted the idea that this book is a literal account of events. But for many Christians, the Bible is not a literal text, so trying to find evidence in today's world of every phrase may miss the point. However, churches have been built around objects that were believed to belong to saints, and people of many faiths feel strong ties to physical places.

Regardless of its origins the Christmas star is an entrenched part of the holiday, and its meaning as a symbol doesn't depend on its link to an actual celestial event. But if nothing else, considering the question provides a way for astronomers to help people better understand their work.