By Deborah Huth Price
In the midst of the holiday season, stars and lights twinkle on houses and lawns, illuminating the darkness. There is a natural decoration of stars and lights every night of the year, if we just remember to look up.
Centuries ago, people used the stars to predict seasons, navigate directions, and incorporate stories and folklore into the heavens above. Every culture on the globe has their own stories about the constellations — stories that were created and enjoyed long before television and computers monopolized our time and city lights blotted out the visibility of stars.
Even with less visibility than in the past, it is still possible to easily see some of the prominent constellations. Instead of reindeer, shepherds and trees, December skies are decorated with stars that draw out pictures of a hunter, bull, a pair of twins, and a couple of dippers.
Look to the northern sky between 7 and 8 pm for the seven stars of the Big Dipper, low on the horizon. This is a good one to start with, since it represents one of the best-known constellations in the northern hemisphere. The last two stars in the cup point straight out to the North Star, located above Earth’s North Pole. While all the other constellations seem to move across the sky, the North Star (or Polaris) remains in the same spot. Polaris is also the tip of the handle of the Little Dipper.
If you turn to the east, three bright stars stand out — they are close together in a line and represent Orion the Hunter’s belt. Two stars above the belt and two below draw out Orion’s body. The reddish star on the left upper body is the star Betelgeuse, many times larger than our Sun.
Just over Betelgeuse in Orion’s shoulder, the two bright stars Castor and Pollux represent the heads of the Gemini twins. Their stick-figure bodies are hard to see, but the heads shine brightly.
Follow the three stars in Orion’s belt in a straight line to the right to find several stars in the shape of a V, making up the head of Taurus the bull.
For those unfamiliar with stargazing, winter is a good time to begin. Dark descends early in the winter months, offering long hours to study the sky. Harry Potter fans can discover the origins of some of their favorite characters by exploring the night sky. In December, you can find the likes of Sirius, Orion, Bellatrix, and Draco.
While enjoying the lights of the season, don’t forget to look up — the real stars are the best decorations in town!