The star of Bethlehem is storied as the guide that brought the three wise men to the Messiah's manger and acted as a sign to the world that the Christ child was born. It's fascinating to many that the stars that appear in the sky today are the very same stars that existed over 2,000 years ago. Today what we see as the North Star is regarded by many to be the guiding star of Bethlehem.
In many cultures, particularly in Orthodox households, the Christmas meal does not begin until the sighting of the first star in the night sky.
*The First Star Around the World
In Poland, Christmas Eve begins as a day of fasting, then of feasting once the first star is spotted. The traditional Wigilia feast begins with family gathering around the table. In a meal that lasts well over an hour, the family enjoys many courses with the exception of red meat dishes and sometimes dairy. In Poland, right after the Christmas meal begins the Festival of the Star, during which the village priest acts as the "star man" and tests the children's knowledge of religion.
In Russian Orthodox households, the sighting of the first star signals the beginning of their Christmas meal, consisting of twelve courses, symbolic of the twelve apostles.
In Hungary, the motif of the star becomes a good luck tradition, in which a star-shaped pattern is cut into the side of an apple, and then the apple is eaten to get that good luck.
In Alaska, children carry a star-shaped figure from house to house, singing Christmas carols and in turn are often rewarded with Christmas treats.
In the Christian tradition, the star symbolizes many aspects of faith, hope and adoration. Some believe that the number of points on a star symbolizes different religious beliefs, such as an 8-pointed star connoting God's love for the world. A star with an X pattern in it is said to derive from the Greek-origin first letter of Christ's name. For these reasons and many others, the star is a meaningful symbol of the holy season.
*Incorporating the First Star Spotting Into Your Holiday Tradition
While the tradition of the holiday meal beginning at the sighting of the first star is an Orthodox ritual, many families of various Christian beliefs embrace the symbol of the star and choose to incorporate the first-sighting tradition in their own families' Christmas dinners.
"I always thought it was something the parents thought up to keep us kids out of the way while the mothers worked in the kitchen to prepare the Christmas Eve dinner, and the fathers gathered in the living room to drink and talk," says Stephen Lubich, remembering his childhood holiday gatherings. "All of my cousins and I crowded around the two living room windows, looking for the star, which also kept us from poking around under the Christmas tree."
True, looking for the star does keep the children entertained, but it's also instills in them the meaning of the first star and its place in a family's religious belief system. If you wish to allow your children to watch out for the first star, it's most safely done inside the house, looking through windows. During the dark winter nights, children should not be allowed to roam freely outdoors unattended, or even attended, since snowy walkways and lawns can pose risk of injury.
Allow children to use binoculars or the family telescope to add a higher-tech angle to searching for the first star, with an adult present to oversee sharing and careful handling of these tools.
Or, if you have a smartphone, use any one of the star-finder apps listed:
--For iPhone: Star Map, Go Sky Watch Planetarium
--For iPad: Star Walk, Go Sky Watch Planetarium
--For Android: Google SkyMap
--For BlackBerry: Pocket Stars
Use of a smartphone or iPad has skyrocketed for astronomy buffs. With the app launched, you simply hold your iPhone or iPad up to the sky and a satellite system reveals the stars, planets and constellations positioned in the sky above you. It even works on a cloudy night when the stars themselves aren't visible. These apps identify celestial bodies by name and outline constellations. With one click, you can learn additional facts such as the star's distance from Earth, the history of its name, as well as any mythology related to it.
Hold off on handing a smartphone to the little ones until the later evening hours, or else they may argue that they've spotted a star before the sun has completely set. With the advent of high-tech astronomy, spotting the first star can be a lesson in science as well as a religious tradition.