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Why Saturn and Jupiter gave us a Christmas gift

The biggest gift of Monday’s great conjunction was much more than two planets aligning

People are silhouetted against the sky at dusk as they watch the alignment of Saturn and Jupiter, Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, in Edgerton, Kan. The two planets are in their closest observable alignment since 1226. Appearing a tenth of a degree apart, the alignment known as the “great conjunction” has also been called the “Christmas Star.”
Charlie Riedel, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — A social media post I saw somewhere this week seemed to put it best: “Sometimes the planets align so we can better see the magic.”

I’m not sure what my wife, a grown son and I were looking for Monday evening as we drove miles from the Wasatch Front toward the clearer skies and cleaner views of the southwestern sky. But as we pulled off the road near Grantsville, it was clear we were not alone.

A long line of parked cars stretched along the frontage road, with people standing or leaning against the frames of their vehicles, binoculars and cameras in hand, watching quietly in the gloaming. Our gaze was firmly fixed on two planets whose overlapping presented what looked like a powerful star. But the people seemed to be looking for more than that.

A lot has been said in recent weeks about things that seem fitting for the end of what most people consider a year of radical adjustment. Utah’s monolith was speculated to be a sign of the times. Even though it obviously was man-made and probably erected long before 2020, it was easy to wistfully imagine it as a message of sorts from some alien beings who might be controlling, or at least watching, our struggles.

In May, scientists discovered a black hole only about 1,000 light years from Earth. That seemed an appropriately eerie, life-sucking source that played into our fears during the first few weeks of a pandemic many people were grasping to understand.

Modern humans are not so different from their ancestors when it comes to searching the skies for signs. But we may be different from them in that we often miss the magic around us.

The great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on Monday was no surprise, of course. Even without the pandemic and a year of social unrest and political petulance, it still would have happened exactly on the winter solstice and four days before Christmas. It still would have been the first truly visible overlap of the two shiny planets since 1226.

We might still have gathered silently in cars by the side of the road, or in parks and backyards, to see it. We still might have viewed it as a reminder of the hope of this season; a hope that speaks of a power far greater than anything we can imagine, who put the wonders of the sky in motion and yet cares about us each by name.

It still might have lent an important bit of perspective to a season that, despite its religious undertones, seems to be increasingly more about gadgets and possessions than the birth of a baby who gave selflessly so we might live.

Last year, Americans charged an average of $1,325 during the Christmas holidays, according to a survey by MagnifyMoney. Most people said they wouldn’t have those bills paid off by the end of January.

Many of those presents probably were part of the digital revolution — a cultural shift that has brought people instant access to much of the world’s knowledge, while often keeping them far from the things that matter most.

Too often, we sit, stand or even walk with our noses pointing downward toward a screen, while the miracle of the universe dances above us and the world on which we stand spins through a cosmos even the brightest among us can’t fully explain.

Writing for The Atlantic this week, Marina Koren said people are hard-wired to seek meaning from celestial bodies. “In moments of crisis and anxiety, the urge to find explanations everywhere is particularly strong,” she wrote.

I suppose there is truth to that, although it isn’t necessary to wait for a crisis to feel the awe of a clear night sky, or to catch the magic in how planets and stars, billions of them, align.

All it takes is a few minutes on a frosty December night with our eyes heavenward, instead of toward the ground. Suddenly, our angers and pet peeves seem flimsy. Suddenly, we see ourselves as less than a tiny speck in an incomprehensibly vast cosmos. Suddenly, we begin wondering whether we matter, then soon realize we can hardly afford to believe otherwise.

That may have been the biggest gift of Monday’s great conjunction. Those who were looking for something more may have been jarred back to earth, so to speak, and toward a perspective much larger than themselves.

In that sense, the alignment of two distant planets was indeed a great Christmas event.