December is a month of lights. Strands of color wrap serpentine around evergreens, travel the limbs of leafless branches, illuminate eaves and window frames and cling to fences bringing the longest hours of darkness to life. Even before the electric companies and holiday sales, hunters, gatherers, storytellers, philosophers, astronomers and all curious people have recognized the month surrounding the winter solstice as a month of lights. The air is dry, temperatures are cold and darkness dominates much of each day. These oppressive elements are accompanied by the brightest stars observable in the Northern hemisphere.
Orion, the dagger-wielding hunter, rises in the east, his belt the most noticeable and reliable symbol of winter. Even as temperatures warm, snow turns to rain, and conversations reminisce of what winter once was, we can look up at night and see that we are indeed, nearing the solstice. A simple look through binoculars reveals a cloudy light in that dagger, nothing too impressive in this age of special effects and fast-paced entertainment, but this view into a blossoming solar system giving birth to millions of infant stars is a gassy wonder for the cerebrally inclined. This is the Orion Nebula.
Next, the eye draws downward from the belt to the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, the Dog Star, and the heart of Canis Major. This mythological pooch and his cohort Canis Minor, the third bright star of the Winter Triangle, have been Orion’s best friend since the days of Zeus, Athena and Artemis, goddess of the moon, and Orion’s famed lover.
Then back up to the belt, in the opposite direction, discover the most famous of all star clusters, the Plaiedes. Not a constellation at all, this tightly packed cluster of dim lights is another birthing place of new stars, a high density Nitrogen zone in which dozens of stars are slowly expanding outward. Seven of these stars can be seen with the unaided eye, thus the common name of Seven Sisters. Look carefully though; has one of these stars burned out? And with a little imagination, can you see a car company’s symbol in this densely packed cluster of stars?
These brightest and most obvious features of the night rise to prominence in early December, and are accompanied of course by a raging bull, a flying horse, a war hero, his lover, her queen mother and king father. December is the month of Sirius radio, Subaru and Clash of the Titans, the pre-Hollywood version. December lights have long inspired and entertained, making the darkest month of the year, just a little bit brighter.