“Behold there came three wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and come to worship him.’”
Just what led the wise men to that makeshift cradle in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago and to its newborn Emmanuel, the undisputed star of the Bible’s Christmas story?
In Frederick, Md., this holiday season, some answers to the question that has spellbound generations are as close as “Mystery of the Christmas Star,” the popular planetarium program put on each winter at the Earth and Space Science Lab at 210 Madison St.
With the Frederick County Public Schools’ facility hitting its half-century landmark in December, organizers have expanded the number of times the show can be seen this month. Shows are scheduled for Dec. 6, 11, 13, 18 and 20.
But even with more chances for the public to see the 45-minute “immersion theater” program, ESSL co-director Mark Bowman predicts most or all of the showings will sell out.
“We see a lot of people who come back year after year,” he said. “This year, because we’re in our 50th anniversary celebration, we’re actually doubling the number of showings over what we usually offer, but it still probably won’t be enough. Of all our shows all year long, this is the one that sells out more than any other.”
Charmingly told with spectacular images and touches of humor, the show aims to put a scientific framework around the familiar Christmas story recounted in the Gospels. By examining historical references, it’s possible to nail down a possible timeframe for the birth of the Christ child and then recreate what stargazers back then would have seen in the sky, Bowman said.
Viewers learn of various theories – meteor showers, comets, planetary conjunctions and other significant events that merited the attention of ancient astronomers around that time – and thus find concrete ties between our modern-day Christmas festivities and the long-ago, real-world events that may have led the Magi to travel across the desert from Babylon to the little town of Bethlehem.
The ESSL has been part of Frederick since December of 1962. The original facility was home to a Spitz A3P planetarium projector with a 24-foot dome and bench seating for 70. “In its earliest incarnation, the Christmas star program was presented with a slide projector and the soundtrack on a reel-to-reel,” Bowman explained.
The sky has an allure that’s almost universal, Bowman said. And, he notes, faithful Christians aren’t the only ones who find “Mystery of the Christmas Star” a fulfilling spectacle.
“Whatever your faith or background, the question of what drew the wise men to Bethlehem is one that’s intriguing,” he said. “We tell the story from the Biblical standpoint, from a historical standpoint, from a scientific standpoint and we let the viewer make up his or her own conclusions – I think that’s one of the keys to why this program is always so well-received.
“It’s just a compelling question to think about.”
For show times, ticket information and other details, call ESSL at 240-236-2694 or go online to sites.fcps.org/essl