Chanukah Celebrations, Sky Gazing, and Other Seasonal Events

This installment of an ongoing feature looks at seasonal events such as Chanukah celebrations and sky gazing for meteor showers, planetary conjuctions, and eclipses.

| December 1998/January 1999

  • 171-Chanukah-celebrations-01.jpg
    Chanukah celebrations last eight days, and center around lighting candles each day in a menorah.
  • 171-star-gazing-02.jpg
    Here's a special sight for sky gazers: a conjunction of the moon and, from top, Mars, Saturn, and Venus.

  • 171-Chanukah-celebrations-01.jpg
  • 171-star-gazing-02.jpg

Many cultures have chosen to celebrate a holiday of cheer and lights when days are shortest, around the time of winter solstice. For the Jewish people, the holiday is Chanukah (sometimes spelled Hanukkah). The holiday commemorates an historical event — the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabees after they defeated the Syrian division of what had been Alexander's empire in the year 165 B.C.E. (165 years before Christianity began).

Chanukah celebrations lasts for eight days, on each of which another candle is lit in the special candelabrum called a menorah. This ceremony is done in memory of the miracle said to have occurred at the time of the Temple's rededication: a single day's supply of lamp oil lasted for a full week. Some of the special holiday foods of Chanukah — such as the potato pancakes called latkes — are cooked in oil for the same reason.

Chanukah can be a time for the family to study the Torah. But it is also a time of gifts to children, which include gelt (money to encourage study) and the famous spinning game top called the dreidl. Even some of our readers who celebrate Chanukah may not know why the date of the holiday varies from year to year, occurring anywhere from late November to late December. The reason is that Chanukah begins on the 25th day of the Jewish lunar month Kislev. It is tied to the new moon nearest to the winter solstice, a moon whose date varies from one calendar year to the next.

Sky Gazing in 1999

In December 1998, we see Venus once again visible as the "Evening Star," Jupiter and Saturn visible most of the evening, a brightening Mars rising in the hour after midnight, and Mercury becoming unusually prominent at dawn. A few details about some of these sights — and others, such as the Geminid meteor shower — can be found in the Almanac at the end of this article. But what greater wonders of the heavens are expected during the course of the year 1999?

Eclipses come in several varieties. Some are merely interesting, but others can be absolutely awesome. Representing the second category are total eclipses of the sun. The last total solar eclipse viewable in the U.S. occurred two decades ago and the next is not due here until almost two decades from now.

But on August 11, 1999, parts of England, France, Germany, eastern Europe, and the Middle East will be treated to a total solar eclipse (continental Europe's first since the early 1960s). For a few minutes, bright planets and stars will come out in the midst of the sudden daytime darkness (bathed in the unearthly eclipse half-light), and such staggering marvels as the gleaming solar corona and (briefly) the diamond-ring effect will become visible.

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