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MSU's Abrams Planetarium makes a dark season bright in 'Season of Light' | Messages from the Mitten

Aaron Burden

Throughout history, the sun, moon and stars have informed our cultural traditions.

A special show running at Michigan State University's Abrams Planetarium is dedicated to exploring the meaning of light during the holidays.

For the past three decades in December, the Abrams Planetarium has opened its doors for screenings of its Season of Light show.

Nayda Anjou is a student presenter at the planetarium. She said the show, in a nutshell, is about the meaning of light.

Image shows a young Black woman wearing a black graphic t-shirt with white designs. She is standing in front of a life-size globe. Above her head, are hanging origami cranes.
Megan Schellong
Nayda Anjou is a planetarium presenter at the Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University.

"You can connect lights to almost every single culture on this earth and they all have their different significances towards it," Anjou said.

The show takes viewers on a historical journey, from centuries ago when Romans would set off fireworks during Christmas, to the present-day American Southwest, where people follow a Mexican tradition of lighting luminarias, or paper lanterns, outside their homes to light the path for Mary and Joseph.

But before we get into why so much of the holiday season involves light, we need to first understand why there’s so little of it here in the Northern Hemisphere during the winter months.

As the lights of the Abrams Planetarium dim down, a narrator tells viewers to settle in.

The seats are reclined at an angle to get the best view, so those in the audience can lean back, get cozy and prepare to be amazed by the night sky.

"By December 21st our hemisphere is tilted away from the sun and the sun appears lowest in our sky," the narrator said.

This is why days are shorter in the winter.

In ancient times, Celtic tribes in northern Europe didn’t know when the longer days of sunlight would return, so they performed a ritual to bring them back.

"Celtic tribes that grade bonfires on hilltops as a sort of fiery encouragement to strengthen the sun, its battle with the powers of darkness and death," the narrator continued.

Rekindling light is also practiced today in Christian and Jewish traditions.

This year, Hanukkah begins on Dec. 18.

The tradition of lighting a menorah is done in honor of the Maccabees' victory over their oppressors.

After reclaiming their temple, the Maccabees only had enough oil to light a candle for one night. But miraculously, it lasted much longer than it should have.

"By the eighth evening, the Hanukkah menorah is ablaze with fire. It shines as a reaffirmation of religious freedom, as a symbol of the light of faith," the narrator added.

In the Christian world, one of the most prominent symbols of light is the Star of Bethlehem.

It is believed to have led the Three Wise Men to greet Jesus on the night of his birth.

So, what exactly could have been the reason why the Star of Bethlehem shined so bright?

There are several theories.

"Occasionally faster moving planets pass slower ones, appearing close together in the sky," the narrator explained.

These are called planetary conjunctions, and they can appear very bright to the naked eye.

Another possible occurrence could have been triggered by a star spilling gases onto another, causing an explosion.

"The star may have been a nova, which means literally new star. novae are double stars that can flare up 1000s of times their normal brightness," the narrator said.

There is also some speculation that the star of Bethlehem could’ve been a supernova.

"Old massive stars that blow themselves up, and explosions that temporarily increase their brilliance millions of times," the narrator said.

While we may never know what astronomical event appeared in the night sky when Jesus was born, the narrator suggests perhaps it’s not the brightness that was the star’s most important feature, but rather the meaning Christians have given it.

Even though the Season of Light show focuses on many symbols of Christianity and Judaism, Anjou said that shouldn’t discourage folks from coming out.

"Even if you're not a religious person, it's more educational than anything. So if you've ever wondered the history about certain things going to, like, holiday traditions, come and see it, it’s great," Anjou said.

With the winter solstice approaching on Dec. 21, moments like lighting up Christmas trees and menorahs provide small reminders there can be light even in the darkest months of our year.

The last holiday shows at the Abrams Planetarium for the year are scheduled Friday and Saturday from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Season of Light music and narration used with permission from Loch Ness Productions. All rights are attributed to Loch Ness Productions.

Megan Schellong hosted and produced Morning Edition on WKAR from 2021 to 2024.
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