Turning Year: Chance to spot a rare earthgrazer

An earthgrazer, from an 1860 painting by Frederick E Church.
An earthgrazer, from an 1860 painting by Frederick E Church.

While the days have often been dull, we’ve been treated to a feast of glowering sunrises, fiery sunsets, and a golden waning moon.

More celestial lights, and maybe the odd fireball, are promised for this Sunday. The annual Geminid meteor shower is a reliable display, with shooting stars possible at any time after sunset — all that’s needed is a cloud-free sky.

The shower will be busiest after midnight because that’s when Gemini is highest. But in the early evening there’s a chance of seeing a rare earthgrazer, a bright meteor racing along the horizon.

The Geminids peak on the night of December 13-14, although it’s worth a look on Saturday and Tuesday too. Allow at least 15 minutes for eyes to adjust from bright indoor lights.

The glories of the night sky have inspired many creative works and also, according to legend, the lights on our Christmas trees.

One Christmas Eve night, in the early 1500s, a man was walking home through a snowy wood when a beautiful sight struck him — the stars, glimpsed through the trees, seemed like heavenly fires among the branches. Determined to recreate the experience for his family, he took home a small fir tree and decorated it with lit tapers. The man was Martin Luther, the theologian who lit the flame of the Protestant Reformation.

This probably never happened, yet it’s a good story that helped to spread the Christmas tree from the Rhineland to the rest of Europe.

The first person to plug in a Christmas tree was Edward Johnson, a colleague of Thomas Edison. Johnson’s string of eighty small electric lights was in production by 1890.

Festive weather

December began with freezing gales, allowing the Met Office to roll out its new storm naming system.

While storms are normal at this time of year, naming them is not. The idea — like the turkey — comes from across the Atlantic, where it’s the custom to name hurricanes. By the end of the winter we may have stopped laughing.

One thing we’ll never get used to is the reality of our Christmas weather. Every year we dream of opening the curtains on Christmas morning to see everything transformed by snow, only to see grey drizzle.

We can blame Charles Dickens. Because of a run of unusually bitter winters his childhood Christmases were almost always white, so when he wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, those memories drifted into the story. Dickens’ festive ideal persists to this day — goodwill, charity, and lashings of snow.

Our most recent White Christmas was in 2010 when snow lay over most of the country, but Met Office records for the last century show the rarity of that event. According to the experts, wet and windy is the most probable outcome for Christmas 2015.

Planet spotters need to be up early, looking to the east. Venus, more brilliant than anything else, rises four hours before the sun and is still visible in the dawn sky. Jupiter is lower, its magnificence dimmed by comparison with the morning star. Between them is Mars; much fainter, yet bright enough to appear quite red even to the naked eye. As the month ends Saturn will join them, rising two hours before the sun.