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Let’s Remember Christmas

By Ed Downs

Sure, there are lots of regulatory, safety and political subjects that warrant comment, but this writer has had just about enough of politics and regulations for 2018. Maybe give it a rest, and just talk about Christmas and some of the traditions that many of us remember. Having stumbled across an article I wrote several years ago, this writer’s memories and passion for aviation, astronomy and astrophysics seemed to come together. Read on and see if some of your “good old days” come to mind.

My twin brother and me were born in Van Nuys, Calif., just before the U.S. entered WWII. It sounds funny now, but Van Nuys was a small, independent town that was somewhat isolated in the middle of the San Fernando Valley. An excellent street car system allowed residents to get into “the city” when circumstances required. Surrounded by citrus fields, Van Nuys was primarily a bedroom community, serving wartime manufacturing at the Lockheed/Burbank and Van Nuys airports. The town’s secondary purpose was to support the movie industry, with many surrounding locations and sets (like a full western town) used in hundreds of “B” western movies and early TV productions. My parents were part the movie industry, Mom as a dancer (and former Olympian) and Dad as a stunt man and bit actor. We kids also did some bit parts in movies and early TV, enjoying the privileges of grammar school run by the studios. Dad eventually entered the photography side of the business, opening a camera shop on Van Nuys Boulevard. Some readers may even know about Van Nuys Blvd., where Wednesday night “cruising” was perfected to the point of becoming a main theme of the movie “American Graffiti.”  

My brother and I grew up in the company of family friends that included guys like William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy), Roy Rogers, Leo Carrillo, Andy Devine and others, along with dancers, such as Marge and Gower Champion. Thrown in with that mix were Lockheed test pilots (Dad did photographic work for Lockheed) and trips to Van Nuys Airport to watch P-38’s taking off and landing. Both me and my brother were hooked on aviation before the age of five. As avid model airplane builders, our father invited us to open a “hobby department” in his camera store at the age of 13, and $500 dollars later, we were in business, able to pay for flying lessons ($11 per hour, dual) at Van Nuys Airport, flying Aeronca Champions with wind driven generators and a two-crystal low-frequency Lear radio… advanced technology! Yep, fun childhood with cowboys, six shooters and airplanes setting a pace that continues to this day. You see, being an aviation professional meant that I never had to grow up!

It was the hobby shop that implanted the most vivid Christmas memories. You see, the Christmas season in Van Nuys always began the day after Thanksgiving with the Bethlehem Star Parade down Van Nuys Blvd. Thanksgiving evening would be spent decorating the store windows for Christmas, complete with a running HO train set and the latest gift offerings, both in model airplanes and camera equipment. Everything had to be in place for the big Christmas parade Friday evening. 

The small town would run lighted decorations across the boulevard and we would all take bets as to whether they would survive the Santa Ana winds that blew them down every year. The parade was hopelessly amateurish when compared to the multimillion-dollar commercial events we see today, but great fun. The following Saturday was always busy, as the store would start staying open until 9 p.m. six days a week for the remainder of the season. 

The Sunday after Thanksgiving was spent at the Griffith Park Observatory, where the traditional planetarium lecture was about the namesake of the parade, the Star of Bethlehem. It now seems almost fitting, that my memories of the Christmas season should go back to those planetarium lectures. It amazes me that we amateur astronomers of today know more about the heavens than the experts did back in those days. The science of space has been rewritten many times since the mid 1950s. Allow this writer to share the planetarium experience that is so related to Christmas traditions, perhaps updated just a bit. Let’s see if a few of your memories kick in.

The “Star of Bethlehem” is a cherished part of the Christmas tradition, as are the Three Wise Men. The “Christmas Star” plays a major role in virtually every aspect of holiday decorations, lore and tradition. The biblical reference in Mathew 2:2 begins our tradition of “The Star in the East” and the holy journey of the three Magi, referred to as “The Three Kings” in late medieval times. It would be hard to imagine the Christmas tradition without this celestial miracle.  A quick search in this writer’s biblical concordance comes up with no less than 10 references to the stars. Many biblical historians believe the Magi were astrologers, skilled in many arts and sciences, having familiarity with the prophecies of Daniel. While today astrology is considered as a completely different subject than astronomy, they were once one and the same, and perhaps the oldest of all scientific understandings by ancient civilizations. Indeed, the stars are an integral part of the holiday season.

As an amateur astronomer, this writer notes continuing work being done to try and verify, scientifically, that the Star of Bethlehem existed in a physical sense that can be verified through the science of astronomy and astrophysics. I am intrigued by such research and a great fan of biblical archeology but my research disclosed that I was treading on disputed ground. To millions, the reality that the “Star” is a miracle contained in the Word, is absolute proof of its existence. Elements of the Christian faith even disagree as to meaning of the “star.” One must stop and consider if it is possible to have two “truths,” one based upon scientific evidence and one based on faith. This writer is inclined to believe that two truths can exist, just as they do when one deals in gravitation theories, as defined and implemented in Albert Einstein’s work, and quantum mechanics as professed by physicist Max Planck. Too much information? These are the issues that give the character “Sheldon” so much trouble in the TV comedy “Big Bang Theory,” portrayed with remarkable technical accuracy. The bottom line is that two “truths” can coexist. 

Those who search for the Star of Bethlehem run into a variety of challenges.  The calendar, as we know it, did not exist, and competing calendars flourished. The precise historical birthday of Jesus is not known. Our current celebration was established centuries after the Crucifixion. Astronomers (astrologers?) of the time did not have hard drives into which data could be stored, and scientific records that might have existed were destroyed when the remarkable documents contained in the Library of Alexandria were lost through a series of devastating wars covering a period of nearly 600 years.  

But today’s computers can roll back time. We can see that the time of Christ’s birth did contain some unusual conjunctions of planets, especially between Jupiter and Venus, meaning they were so close together that they may well have appeared as a single, new, bright “Star.” This conjunction would have appeared in the constellation Leo, known as the “Lion of Judah,” long associated with the coming of a King. A passing comet could certainly have been viewed as the “Star” and may have seemed to have stayed in one position, but comets were traditionally viewed during ancient times as “the coming of bad things” and not likely to be associated with such a holy event. It is interesting to note that Chinese records (avid and skilled astronomers) of the time do speak of a sudden bright light in the sky that lasted for months. This could well have been a supernova, the sudden and explosive death of a star with an explosion that is billions of times brighter than our own sun. Star knowledge was a fact of life in ancient times, serving as guide post for practical navigation and supporting a variety of theologies. 

Today, that connection to the stars is being lost. Many who are born and raised in metropolitan areas never truly see the night sky. Obliterated by light pollution, the sky is dulled, stars faint and the Milky Way, our own galaxy, never seen. Sadly, in many parts of our country, the Bethlehem Star could not be seen even if it did appear. But Christmas is a great time to correct that sad truth. I don’t know if the Griffith Park Observatory still conducts the Star of Bethlehem lecture that I enjoyed as a kid. It is possible that political correctness has eliminated this program. Take a trip to www.astroleague.organd find a local astronomy club. All of these clubs offer public “star parties” with members encouraging guest to enjoy a variety of celestial images and pointing out the sky that might have been seen in Biblical times. 

Consider a telescope as a holiday gift, but not from a discount house, box store or national retailer that stocks such items only for the holiday season. Use your search engine to contact companies like Explore Scientific, Orion Telescopes, Mead Instruments or Celestron, all major manufacturers of quality telescopes. These, and other manufacturers, offer educational videos and excellent values in beginner telescopes at remarkably low prices. Even advance, “Go-To” (automatic finding and tracking) telescopes can be purchased for under $300 from these reputable sources. Our children today think of themselves as computer literate and technologically savvy but abandoned in the wilderness on a dark night with a dead battery, they are lost, even while gazing at a universe filled with directional guidance. Christmas is a time to celebrate a simple happening that took place over 2000 years ago. Perhaps that look back in time should include the reacquisition of celestial knowledge that can take us into the future.

As I complete this editorial view, I realize that Christmas used to be much more than “Black Friday” and a flurry of shopping on the web. I recall setting out in my little Grumman TR-2 over the long Christmas/New Year Holiday given to employees by my employer, Lockheed. Trips would include places like the Grand Canyon, Columbia, Calif., and friends across the country. I recall working in a “brick and mortar” environment, long before the advent of big box stores or the web. I recall a time when it was okay for a kid to ask Santa for a Red Ryder BB gun or a chemistry set from which you could make rocket fuel (and set your bedroom on fire!). Now it is your turn … what memories do you recall, and how might they enhance the holidays that are quickly approaching? 


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