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Notre Dame Professor Researched Origin of Christmas Star

christmas star 2022.jpg
Shelli Harmon- Baker/WVPE

For a long time, the Christmas star has been a pivotal part of Christian nativity scenes, movies and greeting cards. It guided the wisemen to the birthplace of Jesus. But what is the true science behind this star?

Grant Mathews is a professor of cosmology and astronomy at Notre Dame. This year, he wondered what the science department could do to celebrate the holiday season - and there really was only one, shining option.

"I thought we should have something we give a presentation on the astronomy involved in the Christmas story, which is the Christmas star," Mathews said.

Mathews held presentations over the month of December to discuss the true meaning and definition of the Christmas star - and he would use both historical and scientific evidence.

"We show a video that actually goes through the history of all the different celebrations of Christmas, you know, the holly and decking the halls and all of that, which actually go back to earlier roots, you know, in Celtic culture or, you know, Germanic culture," he said.

What he found, was not necessarily what movies, Christmas cards, biblical text and manger scenes portray the star as. The star is known as being so so bright that it led the wisemen to the birthplace of Jesus. There’s only two types of stars that could be that bright. It could be a white dwarf star, which is bigger and has a companion star. The material flows from the bigger star onto the little star, causing it to erupt occasionally from the brightness.

Or is it a supernova — single star that becomes as bright as an entire galaxy. And a star that still emits at least 10s of 1000s or years.

The star is also portrayed as this picturesque shape with a long tail at the end. But, - it actually wasn’t just a singular star. According to historical research, the wisemen -- or " as they were known-- were actually looking at multiple celestial objects."

"There was a rare alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, the moon, the sun, all in the constellation Aries, and Venus, and Mercury and Mars were all right next door," Matthews said. "And in their interpretation that would have meant a very powerful ruler with a special destiny. So that's how they knew a king was born."

Manger scenes portray the wisemen coming to the manger shortly after Jesus was born. But religious experts say, they really didn’t arrive until much later. Mathews agreed.

"Let's just take the interpretation that I like of this one alignment, you know, the Jupiter actually doesn't come in, let's say the alignment of what would have occurred in April, but Jupiter actually doesn't come to rest until December," he said.

While this star is a big part of a religious holiday, Mathews only relied on science and history for his research. But people across all ages and religious preference were interested in his research. It had great reactions from religious groups and even a marriage because of a presentation.

"She was a Christian theology major. And he was an aerospace engineer. And he wanted to ask her out, but he couldn't think of anything they both wanted to go to together," Mathews said. "So he saw this. And so he asked her to go to it. And they fell in love. And that was, so that's how they got together."

Although that wasn't Mathew's intention, he brought people together for a topic that means so much to people who celebrate Christmas.