A festive graphic reading 'Tis the Season appears on a dome-shaped screen. Then, Michael Magee, the UA planetarium director, projects a second image, of stars scattering across the curved ceiling.
"This is what the night sky could have looked like 2,000 years ago, around the time of Christ's birth," Magee said.
Magee points to the eastern sky and proposes an astronomical theory, one of many which attempts to explain the Bible's Star of Bethlehem.
"Here's Mars, Venus and Jupiter," Magee said. "At one point, 2,000 years ago, they had a setup where two or three planets came close together and did what's called a conjunction, which means they (the planets) line up along a longitude or latitude line."
Could the alignment of planets explain the "Star of Bethlehem"? According to some astronomers, it's likely. Research suggests the night sky was especially active 2,000 years ago, Magee said.
Although astronomers have put an emphasis on proposing theories on what the Star of Bethlehem may have been, ancient cultures looked to the night skies for information long before the Biblical birth of Jesus.
"During the winter months, cultures, especially those in the Northern Hemisphere, would celebrate the idea that the darkness and coldness of winter was soon going to change as spring approached," Magee said. "They knew from astronomical observations that before long, light would return, with warmer and longer days."
One such culture was the Pagans, who celebrated Yule, an observance of the longest night of the year, or winter solstice. Magee draws a correlation between Yule--which was celebrated annually between the dates of Dec. 20 and Dec. 22--and Christmas.
"The birth of Christ was celebrated in December, but research and historical texts show that more than likely, the birth of Christ took place in mid-to-late spring, because, according to the Bible, there were shepherds in their fields tending to their flocks," Magee said.
Does all of this sound something like a spin-off of The Da Vinci Code? These ancient cultures, astronomy and light are among the topics discussed in 'Tis the Season, a multimedia presentation featured at the UA's Flandrau Science Center. Following each presentation, a host will hold a live discussion.
The presentation and discussion will take place in the planetarium, where a control board changes the contemporary night sky into a historical night sky with the flip of a switch.
Beyond Christmas and Pagan ceremonies, 'Tis the Season explores the cultural and religious ceremonies of the Jewish, Celtic, Nordic, Roman, Egyptian and Hopi peoples.
"What was found, as astronomers researched other cultures, was that because this time of year tends to be dark and cold, many cultures, for survival purposes, starting developing traditions of lighting things up with candles, with fires," Magee said. "They use the night sky to measure the season, when the seasons begin and end, when they are going to be able to plant their crops and harvest their crops."
For cultures dependent on agriculture, the change in seasons played a crucial role in their very survival, which led to some interesting celebrations. Magee cites as an example the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, from Dec. 17 to Dec. 23, in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture and harvest.
"During that week around the solstice, no one in the Roman culture worked," Magee said. "Because they had slaves at that time, the masters and the slaves would swap roles, and the masters would dress up in costumes and serve the slaves."
This holiday season, the UA planetarium will explore the various historic traditions in connection to the night sky. The discussion is especially relevant this year, because Jupiter and Venus will form a conjunction within the next few weeks.
"It's very interesting that we have a conjunction in the Southwestern sky between the planets Jupiter and Venus, just like 2,000 years ago, at the time of Christ's birth," Magee said.
'Tis the Season presentations will take place at Flandrau: The UA Science Center from Friday, Nov. 28, through Sunday, Jan. 4, 2009. Shows take place Fridays and Saturdays at 6:30 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Special 2:30 p.m. showings will be held on Friday, Nov. 28; Friday, Dec. 26; Monday, Dec. 29; Tuesday, Dec. 30; Wednesday, Dec. 31; and Friday, Jan. 2. Tickets are $7.50 for adults and children 10 years and up; $5 for children 4 to 9 years of age; free for children 3 and younger; and $1 for students with a CatCard. For a more extensive list of holiday planetarium shows, go to the Flandrau Web site, or call 621-STAR.