The Gift of Orion
Holly Enzmann, FREA
A true mark of the winter season and the approach of the holidays is the emergence of the constellation Orion with his loyal K9 companion, Sirius, trailing behind him. Sirius is the brightest start in the night sky (contrary to popular belief of that title belonging to the north star), and Orion’s human-esq structure is unmistakable. Betelgeuse marks his left shoulder. He has a bright 3-star belt with a hanging sword and an outstretched arm holding a great arched bow. These two – the hunter and his dog – trace back very far in history, and as we are to discuss here, even the story of the birth of Christ alludes to their majesty.
The two westward travelers are mostly visible at night in the late fall and winter. In the summer, Orion is a morning man and rises bright and early directly underneath the Sun. It’s quite stunning on a star map – it looks like he holds the sun high in his right hand, slam-dunking it into the western horizon at sunset. Alas, no one can see him in his glory at this point, since the sun is outshining him by proximity.
As the year goes on, Orion starts to sleep in, rising after the sun does. Come March 1st he sleeps in late and rises around 12:30 pm. By the Autumn Equinox* in September, he hits the night sky around 1:30 am. This is when his nightlife begins.
By December 21, the Winter Solstice*, Orion has trailed behind so much that he rises as the sun sets around 4:30. Then, around 8:15 on Christmas Eve, he and his trusty pup reach a position of Biblical proportion.
Most people know the Christmas story of the 3 Kings who followed a star in the east to find the birthplace of the Son of God, described by these scriptures from the Book of Matthew:
Matthew 2:1 – 2, 9-10 (NKJ)
 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the King, behold, there came 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 are come to worship him.
 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
Firstly: I think we can confirm they saw the star in the east. And as you read this, obviously the kings were traveling at night, likely before midnight, maybe around, say, 8pm. The Sun would be setting early and low, leaving them to journey for many hours in darkness. During these dates and times, even back in 0BC and in Israel, the brightest stars in the sky at that time would be Sirius and those in Orion. They are in the east until crossing at the meridian line (due south), around 11:15 pm.
Sirius is about 20° directly below the very bright belt of Orion. The belt has 3 stars: Mintaka, at the top, then Alnilam, and Alnitak**. They are a collection of single, double and multiple star systems, with some of the largest, hottest and brightest stars in the sky. Three incredibly bright stars, pointing through Sirius to the horizon line. This arrangement could be represented by three powerful kings, following the star in the east, searching for the birth of the Son.
Now, every year starting on the Spring Equinox, the Sun rises at 0°, due East (per the Equatorial Celestial Coordinates Grid System – as opposed to the Azimuthal System; an article for another time). It rises more southeast every morning until on the Winter Solstice, usually December 21st, it rises at the lowest point of its journey at -23° on the horizon.
Then it stops! It slumbers and rises at this same -23° point for three mornings. But on the fourth day, Christmas morning, it will rise one degree closer to the East at -22° on the horizon. On Christmas Eve, the last day of the Sun’s slumber, Orion will have risen at sunset and be high in the east, his belt in alignment with Sirius.
Coincidentally, at 8:15 pm, if you trace your finger down Orion’s belt to Sirius and continue straight down, that will be the exact point on the horizon where the Sun rises on Christmas morning; and with it, the start of longer days. The birth of the light; the birth of the Son. Astronomy and religion aligned.
Christmas morning represents the return of the sun’s path rising eastward, bringing its light and energy back to us towards the months of warmth and harvest. Here at FREA, beyond being huge Orion fans, we believe that the story of the Three Kings is a record of an astronomical event. A life hack, if you will, for finding where the sun will rise on Christmas morning without using star maps. The Three Kings were wise – they knew this trick. They knew to follow the star in the east, and it would bring them to the Son (sun).
FREA wishes you a happy celebration of light and the birth of a new year this December. We’ll be back next month to begin preparation for the astronomical new year on the Spring Equinox!
*The word ‘Solstice’ originates from two Latin words; ‘Sol’, meaning ‘Sun,’ and ‘Stit’, meaning ‘stopped, stationary.’ So, when the sun reaches its highest or lowest point, it stops for three days, therefore it is the “Solstice”! The word ‘Equinox’ obviously means ‘equal’, since the sun is at 0°, an equal distance between +23° and -23°.
** Orion’s belt consists of multiple star systems containing O-type blue giants. Blue O-type stars are the biggest and hottest stars on the main sequence, burning so hot and strong that they burn out of the main sequence after around 10,000,000 years, as opposed to our much smaller and slow-burning Sun that can last up to 10,000,000,000 years.
Please enjoy the exhibits offered here: Belt of Orion Star Atlas from the Enzmann Archive and the 2024 Betelgeuse Visibility Tracking Chart. Click Below and view them for free!