How many points are on your Christmas star?
Many years ago, my brother and I built a wood Christmas star to put on our parents’ house. We lighted it with white lights. The star was about five feet across and had eight rays — because that’s what worked out with the wood furring strips we had to make it from. We didn’t think about the symbolism of eight rays then.
One of the highlights of our Christmas celebrations is remembering the star that led the Wise Men: “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage’” (Mt 2:1-12).
We all know there was a star at Bethlehem, thanks to the evangelist Matthew. Replicas of the star adorn Nativity scenes and Christmas cards, and are highlighted in carols and top many Christmas trees.
However, Matthew doesn’t tell us what the star of Bethlehem looked like; what color it was or how many rays came from it. All we know is that it was special — and that it moved.
Star of the Magi
Some astronomers say the Star of Bethlehem could have actually been a comet that appeared in 5 B.C. (recorded in ancient Chinese records). Others speculate it was a planetary conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, which happened three times in 7 B.C., first calculated by astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1603. Some say the star was actually a nova (the explosion of a star), also placed in Chinese records as occurring in March to April of 5 B.C.
Others suggest astrology was involved. The Magi were known as astrologers from the East. Astrology among the Persians was treated more like a science than the “what’s happening to me today” aspect of modern ideas of astrology. Astrologers from that era were highly educated in mathematics and current events. They believed that the stars revealed truths about human life and history, and they studied movements of heavenly objects to gain insight into how their world worked.
So, rather than following some obvious celestial event, the Magi in Matthew’s Gospel may have been alerted by a particular arrangement of stars. This may have been the appearance of a planet in the constellation Leo (the constellation of royalty), which could have meant some important event was happening to a present world leader or royal family. We do know that both Jupiter and Venus appeared in Leo several times in 2 and 3 B.C., according to Chicago’s Adler Planetarium.
Or a comet might have caught their attention, like the recorded one in 5 B.C. For example, ancient Romans believed that a comet in 44 B.C. appeared because of the assassination of Julius Caesar earlier that year.
How many rays?
Whatever physical reality can be attached to the Star of Bethlehem and to the Magi who followed it, we can now find plenty of Christian symbolism attached to that star. Much of this comes from how many rays are depicted on the star.
For example, one of the more common representations is the four-pointed star, sometimes called “a natal star” because of Christ’s birth. A natal star has its tail pointing toward the manger or the stable. This star’s shape also serves to remind us of the cross.
Another popular representation of the Christmas star is the five-pointed star, mathematically known as a pentagram. (Remember, for this type of star to be a Christian symbol, one point of the five points should be aimed toward heaven.) It symbolizes the five wounds of Christ.
There are six-pointed stars (reminiscent in modern times of the Star of David) that recall Jesus’ Jewish origins. Some sources also call it the Creator Star, because God created the world in six days.
And an eight-pointed star, like the one my brother and I made, serves to highlight the eight beatitudes or Mary, whose birthday is marked on Sept. 8, and whose Immaculate Conception is celebrated on Dec. 8. Pope Francis has an eight-pointed star on his coat of arms to honor Mary.
Nine points on a Christmas star remind us of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, listed in Gal 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
A 12-pointed star brings to mind the 12 Apostles and the 12 tribes of Israel. Also, the Book of Revelation has a passage referring to a woman crowned with 12 stars. Many statues of Mary show her crowned with 12 stars.
Another star you might see at this time of year has 14 points. This may be because the star that marks the spot of Jesus’ birth in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is a 14-pointed star. This is meant to remind us of Matthew’s genealogy of Christ: “Thus there were 14 generations in all from Abraham to David, 14 from David to the exile to Babylon, and 14 from the exile to the Messiah” (Mt 1:17).
Another star commonly seen from Advent to Epiphany is the Moravian star. While not a Catholic symbol, this is a popular Advent decoration that originated in Germany in the middle of the 19th century. This white star most often has 26 points and is also called the Herrnhut Star.
The Moravian star actually began as a geometry lesson in a boys’ school in Niesky, Germany. The shape — identified by Kepler in 1619 — is technically a geometric shape called a “stellated rhombicuboctahedron” composed of 18 square and 18 triangular cone-shaped points. Peter Verbeek, a graduate of the Niesky school, began selling copies of the shape in his shop, and it soon became a popular “Christmas star.”
However many points there are on your Christmas star, the real point to remember is what Christmas reminds us and what Jesus himself said: “I am the light of the world” (Jn 8:12).
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; adlerplanetarium.org; religionfacts.com; catholic-saints.info; w2vatican.va; fisheaters.com; monroehistorical.com; germangirlinamerica.com; and oldsalem.org