Answer Man: What's the story behind the Christmas star?

News-DemocratDecember 11, 2013 

When I was in Naples, Italy, with I Musici Missouri during the Christmas season in 1999, we saw thousands of Christmas stars shaped like a comet with the head of the comet depicted as a five-sided star. I had never seen this design before and took it as an Italian custom. After 14 years, I have finally built a large one, which is on our house. What is the story behind this comet-shaped Christmas star? -- Robert Charles Howard, conductor of the Belleville Philharmonic Orchestra

For something that gets such short shrift in the Bible, the Christmas "star" has become perhaps the most debated astronomical phenomenon in history.

Those familiar with the Gospels know that only Matthew mentions a star and even then only in three verses. But one of those verses -- Matthew 2:9 -- is a doozy: " ... and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was."

The thing is, stars don't move and stop, a fact that even the Catholic Encyclopedia recognizes in its article on the Magi.

"The position of a fixed star in the heavens varies at most one degree each day," it reads. "No fixed star could have so moved before the Magi as to lead them to Bethlehem. ... Only a miraculous phenomenon could have been the Star of Bethlehem."

Ever since, artists have looked for ways of depicting this heavenly wonder to befit its miraculous nature while following Matthew's literal description. So while you and I generally have this image of a large, novalike star, Italian artists as early as the 1300s began painting comets over the Nativity.

Case in point: Giotto di Bondone (often known simply as Giotto), a Florentine painter and architect. In 1303, Enrico Scrovegni, a Padua businessman, commissioned the construction of a chapel. (Some suggest it was partly to atone for the sins of his father, a hated moneylender who had been condemned to the seventh circle of Hell by Dante himself.)

To decorate the chapel with colorful frescoes, he hired Giotto, who used it to produce some of his most influential work as he painted dozens of scenes of Mary and Christ using a theme of salvation. And one that gets much notice is his "Adoration of the Magi," which you can see if you go to the Wikipedia page of the same title and scroll to the thumbnails near the bottom.

Instead of the traditional star with rays streaming down on Jesus, he has painted a fiery comet whooshing over the manger. Its tail points upward into the night sky -- exactly as a real comet streaming away from the sun would do, says Chet Raymo, who wrote the Science Musings column for the Boston Globe for 20 years.

So what inspired Giotto? Raymo speculates that it was Halley's comet, which Giotto surely would have seen when it passed by in 1301, just a few years before.

"The posture of the comet in the sky was similar to that of the comet in Giotto's painting, although reversed left to right, presumably for compositional reasons," Raymo noted. "The coma and tail of Giotto's comet are strikingly similar to photographs of Comet Halley made during its 1910 apparition."

Using a comet certainly would have been logical for Giotto. Comets already had long been associated with the births of kings and the start of new dynasties. Even early theologians, not knowing about a comet's regular periodic nature, figured a comet was the celestial signpost. Hey, they were bright and they moved.

Since then, of course, scientists have been trying to explain what Matthew described. Some astronomers have noted that from about 3 B.C. to 7 A.D., earthlings were treated to several events that would have drawn attention, including conjunctions of Jupiter and Venus near Regulus and Jupiter and Saturn. (Halley's had come and gone in 12 B.C.)

But long before modern attempts to explain it came along, Italian painters focused on comets, which eventually became fused with more traditional stars to produce the decoration you see today.

"In Italy (and not only there), there is always a comet-star on top or in the background of the Nativity," Francesca Casazza, a board member of the Italian Cultural Society in Bethesda, Md., told me.

For a knock-your-socks-off example from Verona, go to

Today's trivia

How large is the nucleus of Halley's comet?

Answer to Wednesday's trivia: Comedian-actor Richard Anthony Marin's nickname is "Cheech," which is short for "chicharron," a popular fried pork skin that is a favorite of marijuana smokers with the munchies. It also provided nice alliteration for the duo Cheech and (Tommy) Chong.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or or call 618-239-2465.

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