Staerkel Planetarium show offers an enlightening look at some December traditions

In the grim short days of deep winter, the stars seem to shine even brighter and brittler.

David Leake, the director of the William M. Staerkel Planetarium at Parkland College in Champaign, says cultures have come up with holidays all around the world to find warmth around the shortest day of the year, Dec. 21.

This is the last weekend for "Season of Light," a spectacular view of constellations and our own sun and how their positions affected everything from Stonehenge and the Hopis to the Egyptians and, of course, Christmas.

It's all about bringing light to darkness.

The menorah lights up the room for Hanukkah just as Christmas lights, formerly candles, do for Christians, according to "Season of Light," now showing at the planetarium.

At the solstice, our homestar is at its lowest angle to the Earth, Leake said.

Celtic, Nordic, Roman, Irish, Mexican and Hopi markings of the shortest day are included in the film. "Season of Light" showings also have original work done at Parkland, showing on the 50-foot-diameter dome.

The digital "fulldome" premiered in summer 2010. Watching Saturn move across its surface is an awe-inspiring sight — and also a slight motion-sickness generator for at least one viewer at a recent showing.

And at 7 p.m. Saturday, there's a children's short, "Santa's Secret Star," about how Santa uses the North Star to navigate because compasses don't work well up there.

"The elves stole his GPS," Leake joked.

The Roman holiday Saturnalia is one of several in "Season of Light."

Leake said that as the night grew longer than the day, the world was turned upside down. So the Romans invented a holiday to honor Saturn, a god of agriculture and plenty at a time when famine could rule.

"The Romans brought evergreens into their houses to brighten them up" with artificial spring, Leake noted. They also gave gifts — and temporarily raised slaves to free status.

Leake points out that we don't really know in what year Jesus Christ was born, let alone the day. Early Christians turned Saturnalia, with its drinking and gambling, into a holy day, one that has continued to add non-Christian traditions through the centuries.

Part of the Christmas story is the Star of Bethlehem.

That star led the three wise men to baby Jesus. Leake said that without knowing the day of Jesus' birth, it's impossible to know what star they followed — or even if it was a planet.

Matthew tells the story in Chapter 2 of his gospel:

"Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem," the King James Version says.

"Saying, 'Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.'"

Even Halley's Comet has been the source of speculation about the "star." It appeared in 12 B.C.; King Herod died in 4 B.C.

"It's fascinating to speculate about it," Leake said.

Even before Christianity, Jews also celebrated the miracle of light, in the form of the menorah.

Hanukkah marks the revolt of the Maccabee family against the Greek and Macedonian rulers of Israel.

The eight days of Hanukkah mark the rededication of the Holy Temple in 164 B.C., and the miracle of eight days of oil burning in a menorah there, even though there was only a day's supply, according to the Talmud.

The movie noted the holiday coincides with the solstice. This year's celebration is Dec. 8-16, or 25 Kislev in the Hebrew calendar.

Rather than a winter celebration, Ari Kravetz, kosher supervisor at Champaign's Hillel Foundation, said Hanukkah represents a historic time period.

"The first miracle we celebrate is because of our victory over the Greeks' attempt to assimilate the Jews, and the second reason we celebrate is the miracle of the oil," he said.

 

If you go

What: "Season of Light," tracing the history and development of many of the world's holiday customs, all of which involve lighting up the winter season

When: 8-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Where: William M. Staerkel Planetarium, Parkland College, 2400 W. Bradley Ave., C

Tickets: Adult $5; students, seniors and children $4; (all tickets sold at the door)

Also: "Tales of the Sky: A Storytelling Adventure" will play at 7 p.m. Friday; the children's film "Santa's Secret Star" is at 7 p.m. Saturday (if you see both the 7 and the 8 p.m. shows the same night, you get the second show half-price)

More information: http://www.parkland.edu/planetarium

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