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The Magi and the Magic of Celestial Bodies.

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

By Mark Nicholson

The Transit of Venus

Kenya. December 26, 2022

Yesterday was Christmas day. You wouldn’t think I would need to say that but in our family it always causes a debate since we celebrate two Christmases every year.

After a lunchtime feast of roast chicken (which we all prefer to turkey), we went off for a walk with the dogs and met up with Kamau, a young boy of about 10, who lives in the tea camp below us in the valley with his single mum. He likes to come home several times a week to play table tennis. I asked him about his Christmas. He replied that he had had a mandazi , a Swahili air-filled doughnut, for breakfast. In the evening, he was expecting a bowl of rice with sukuma wiki, a collard that is widely grown as a staple vegetable in this part of the world. His modest Christmas meal reminded the more fortunate of us that a Christmas feast in a mainly Christian African country is not available to everyone. On a good day, his Mum earns about Ksh. 350-450 (around $3.50) picking tea. On that meagre wage, she has to look after her family and pay primary school fees, supposedly free in Kenya, yet in reality not at all. Many young children are sent home for failing to contribute to school finances and many children in the camp pick tea, which is illegal.

No religious festival has absorbed more pagan traditions, along with the amalgamation of other myths and stories, than the ‘Western’, i.e. Catholic/ Protestant, Christmas. Santa Claus (from the Dutch Sinter Klaas) seems to have evolved from two totally unrelated sources: one was Nicholas, Bishop of Myra in Turkey in the 3rd Century C.E., who was canonized for his generosity. The other was based on one of the Scandinavian gods, Odin (Wotan/Wodan) or his son Thor. In Norse mythology, reindeer were supposed to represent the god Thor with his chariot pulled by horned goats. Santa’s resurgent popularity in the 20th Century was the result of Coca Cola’s advertising campaign of 1933. Christmas trees were introduced into England by Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert in 1840. In his German-speaking homeland they had been a winter decoration since the 1500s. Queen Victoria sent the first Christmas card in 1843 and that tradition will doubtless be replaced by text messages. A London baker created Christmas crackers in 1847. Both the Aztecs and the Mayans domesticated turkeys which were later shipped back to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors.

Likewise, no festival has been more corrupted by consumerism, materialism and excess. So my Ethiopian wife has every right to perceive it as the “phoney” Christmas. In contrast, Orthodox Christmas as observed in Eastern Europe, Syria, Coptic Egypt and Ethiopia is celebrated on January 7th (based on the Julian calendar). In Ethiopia, Santa Claus and other trappings do not feature and it is a more sober affair. The Christmas feast is preceded by a 40-day fast when no meat, eggs or dairy products can be eaten. On Christmas Eve (January 6th) the faithful converge on churches and enjoy (or endure) services lasting between six and ten hours. At 5 a.m. they return home to prepare doro wat, a chicken stew accompanied by njera, the staple fermented bread that is unique to Ethiopia. Christmas gifts are not part of the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition.

Of the four gospels, only Matthew says anything about the Wise Men. Were they also Kings and/or astrologers? This has always confused me since I have never associated either astrologers or monarchs with wisdom (1). The Magi have roots in Zoroastrianism and I have always wondered why Zoroastrians should have had an interest in the Jewish Emmanuel when their concept of monotheism was so different. I can accept that shepherds were present at the birth of Jesus but the Wise Men surely arrived much later or Herod would not have ordered the slaughter of all infants under two years old (again only mentioned in Matthew).

On Christmas evening, we lit a fire outside and discussed the star of Bethlehem that supposedly guided the Magi to the adoration of Jesus. As a keen amateur astronomer, I have always wondered what ‘the star’ was. If one excludes deus ex machina in the proceedings, it must either have been a comet (not Halley’s, but probably what is known as a non-periodic comet) or more likely an especially resplendent Venus nearing full phase before it disappears behind the sun.

I have urged all my children to witness at least one memorable celestial event in their lives. I have been lucky to have watched quite a number. Four stand out: one lasted for months, two lasted several hours and one (unpredicted) lasted perhaps three seconds.

In 1994, comet Hale-Bopp was clearly visible for months as it streaked (2) across the sky on its long elliptic path around the sun. It was far more impressive than Comet Halley in 1985/6 (3).

Comet Hale-Bopp 1997

Every year, the earth passes near or through the remains of comets, which can produce meteor showers at specific times of the year. On November 17-19 each year, the earth receives a meteor shower known as the Leonids, which radiate from the direction of the constellation of Leo. As the ice and cometary dust particles hit the Earth’s atmosphere, the friction produces shooting stars. Every 33 years, the Earth passes through the middle of the trail. In November 1998, I headed out to Lake Magadi with a friend to watch the event. During a normal meteor shower, one expects to see 10-100 shooting stars an hour. In 1966 and 1998, the showers produced 1000-5000 shooting stars per hour. At the same time 2000 km to the west, a South African friend, Gavin, was piloting his plane due south across the Sahara, in a line of three 747s. The leading jet was a Virgin Airways, followed by two SAA 747s out of London and Zurich, all heading for Johannesburg. The meteors were streaking across the sky in their thousands appearing to be only slightly above their heads and all pilots were concerned for their aircraft lest a meteorite hit them. The pilot of the Virgin flight radioed to say he wanted to turn around and return to London but Gavin suggested they ask air traffic control to allow them all to descend 20,000 ft, which they did. Gavin said it was one of the most spectacular (and alarming) sights he had ever seen.

Leonid showers, 2001

At the start of this century, we enjoyed total solar eclipses in Romania (2000) and Zambia (2001). The African eclipse was very special as I was with three close friends on an island in the Zambezi, just over thirty years after a nearby camping trip with our editor, Richard, and his parents. It was 1p.m. and we enjoyed a long eclipse (with smoked salmon and champagne, of course) lasting nearly five minutes (4). The birds fell silent, baboons started their night alarm calls and stars became visible in the eerie half-light. As the diamond ring appeared and sunlight returned, the hippos started their morning grunts and the birds began their dawn chorus.

Diamond ring at the end of a total eclipse

On 5 June 2012, I was at a swimming pool in Nairobi at the start of the transit of Venus, when the planet passes directly between the sun and us. It is the rarest predictable event in the heavens as the Earth and Venus are usually on different planes. The event lasts several hours and occurs twice eight years apart and then not again for 134 years (10th December 2117). I watched with eclipse glasses and binoculars as the planet (and Earth’s real twin) crossed one hundred million kilometres from the sun, yet looking like a tiny speck on the sun’s surface (see headline photo).

Of all the planets, none interests me more than Venus. Of the four rock planets, only the Earth and Venus have atmospheres, are geologically active and heat-producing from their radioactive core. Venus is closer to the sun and should be no more than 50 degrees C hotter than the Earth. It is, in fact, 450 degrees C hotter owing to climate change. Only in the last 50 years have we been able to see below the dense clouds of CO2 and sulphuric acid. Prior to that, the eccentric British astronomer Patrick Moore used to predict that Venus might be covered in dense prehistoric vegetation. After numerous failed Russian landings, Moore had to admit that if you ever landed there you would be "fried, squashed, poisoned and corroded" in one second. The famous Caltech planetary scientist, Professor Andrew Ingersoll coined the term “Runaway greenhouse theory” based on his Venusian climate research. He reasoned that as Venus got hotter, its oceans boiled away, the moisture vapour trapped all the planet‘s heat, and there was no way to stop the heating. He modelled the Earth in the same scenario. In the 1980s I heard him in Cambridge predict a similar fate for the Earth. I emailed him two months ago to ask if he had changed his mind. He has not, but gives us a few thousand years.

The final unexpected celestial event for me was a fireball in 1999 in a remote part of western Kenya. We were enjoying a braai when suddenly the sky lit up and one meteor exploded above our heads and split into two. So, somewhere in the vicinity, some lucky person might find a meteorite.

Enjoy the Earth while it is still habitable, keep an eye out for 10th Dec 2117.

መልካምየገናበዓል/ Melkam yeganna (Happy Christmas) if you are Orthodox and Happy New Year if you are unorthodox

1 Apologies to James 1 of England/ James VI of Scotland who was known as "The wisest fool in Christendom".

2 "Streaked" is a deceptive verb. Hale-Bopp looked every night as if it was motionless in the sky but comets travel at about 3000 k.p.h. far from the sun, increasing in speed to 150,000 k.p.h. as the sun’s gravitational pull accelerate them.

3 Halley did not discover the comet; he described its orbit in 1705. It was probably the comet that was woven into the Bayeux Tapestry, which commemorates the battle of Hastings in 1066. It reappears every 75.5 years.

4 A normal solar eclipse lasts 2-3 minutes but the longest is 7 minutes 40 seconds.


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