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Wetherbee Planetarium show lights up winter

ALBANY, Ga. -- Some of the fondest memories of winter time revolve around light -- the crackling flames of a log in a fireplace, the stars twinkling in clear, crisp skies, strings of colored lights encircling a Christmas tree, burning candles in menorahs and advent wreaths.

The relationship between light and winter is being explored this month in one of the most popular shows at the Wetherbee Planetarium -- "Season of Light."

The northern hemisphere gets fewer hours of sunlight as autumn progresses and temperatures drop, with winter starting on the shortest day of the year -- the winter solstice, which is Tuesday.

Allsion Young, program coordinator at Thronateeska Heritage Center, where the Wetherbee is located, said the 35-minute program that's being presented three times daily this month has a "theme of light."

The show isn't completely focused on Christmas. "It starts out explaining why winter is so dark and so cold," Young said. "With the language the narrator uses, you almost start to feel cold. It's just this dark, cold city covered with snow. You see trees and you hear wind. You just want to shiver.

"When it's dark, the human response has always been to create as much light as you can."

Some of the topics covered predate Christianity.

"It talks about Saturnalia, how that was celebrated before Jesus was born," Young said. "And then how the Roman church -- it doesn't give the ruler's name at the time, but he was Julian the First -- declared Dec. 25th as the day when Jesus's birthday would be celebrated. The Romans did decorate trees but what really made it catch on was how the Germans did it later on. They would put fruit and other things in the trees."

But no show about winter and light would be able to sidestep the most famous -- and debated -- light associated with this time of year, the Star of Bethlehem.

"It's the last part covered in the show," said planetarium guide Jim Friese, an amateur astronomer since 1995. "It actually gives some of the scripture of the wise men coming, and then it starts talking about they do not know what the Star of Bethlehem was and runs through a couple of theories -- supernova, comet and planetary conjunction. And it kind of focuses on the planetary conjunction, primarily because it's the only thing that would mean anything to the wise men that was really different at the time."

In the biblical account in Matthew, wise men from the East (likely Babylon) meet with King Herod, asking where they can find the King of the Jews whose birth was foretold by "his star." After consulting with his priests and scribes regarding Jewish prophecies, Herod sends the magi to Bethlehem to find the Christ child.

The wise men were the era's premier skywatchers, but they existed in a time when the science of astronomy had not separated from astrology, much in the same way that chemistry and alchemy were a common discipline originally.

"These people, like all ancient cultures, are ruled by the night sky," Friese said. "It was their means of navigation, time-keeping and, most importantly, their calendar. But for the everyday person, it was used for fortune-telling and prophecy."

The program at the Wetherbee doesn't try to settle the debate on what the star was. Instead it explores several theories that have developed over the past 2000 years. The list includes supernovae, UFOs, comets, shooting stars and a rare planetary conjunction. Friese says that "none of these fit exactly."

Shooting stars are dismissed because they last only moments and come at regular times, he said. A supernova, meanwhile, last three-five weeks, but would have been noticed by others, including the Chinese. There are no recorded supernova that occurred near the time Jesus was born, an event that is believed by scholars to have occurred in one spring between 8 BCE and 4 BCE.

"If it was announced that a bright comet was going to be in the sky tonight, people would flock to see it and marvel," Friese said. "But 100 years ago and much further back, they were considered heralds of doom and gloom."

Friese noted an example involving none other than Albany founder Nelson Tift.

In 1835, Tift wrote: "I saw the comet this evening about 7 o'clock, I think about 45 degrees above the horizon ... it was asserted by some that it would come so near the earth as to set it on fire! & by others that they would come in contact."

Friese also dismisses the idea that a rare planetary conjunction was the source of inspiration to the ancient astronomers. That celestial event, he said, involved a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn with the star Regulus.

"The three of them would have made a great show," he said, "but a conjunction is a conjunction. They happen and they are predictable.

"As an astronomer myself, I have a little bit of difficulty with that. You wouldn't call a conjunction of planets a star. They saw Jupiter and Saturn coming a year beforehand. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me to call a conjunction of planets a star."

When it gets down to it, Friese noted, "The only historical document we've really got is the Bible."

The show, which is scheduled 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., is one of the more popular shown at the planetarium. "We do have some people come here requesting to see it," Young said,noting that last week a family visiting from New York came to the facility and wanted to see "Season of Light."

The planetarium is located at 100 Roosevelt Ave. Admission to the show is $3.50, plus applicable sales tax. The planetarium is open this week Monday-Thursday and Dec. 27-31.