Winter stargazing offers some of the best starry nights of the entire year. The cold weather often deters people from stargazing, but it’s worth the effort to bundle up, pour a hot drink, and grab a blanket to make it more comfortable and enjoyable.
To help inspire you to think beyond the chilly temps, I interviewed Tacy Quinn and Lauren Theis of Gnome Matter the Weather. They shared the Scandinavian way of approaching winter activities and offer practical tips for staying warm while stargazing under Orion’s belt. Check out the podcast episode with that interview HERE.
The Winter constellations are so fun to find, including a couple of great gems you might not know about. Here’s what you can expect.
Unless you’ve been meticulously tracking the sun over the past year, you won’t visibly notice the day of the solstice. But it’s worth remembering that it is a celestial event that takes us into a new season. Earth has reached the point in its orbit where its North Pole is pointed away from the sun. This position gives the Northern Hemisphere long, dark nights and chilly weather.
The Winter Solstice was important to nearly all cultures in the Northern Hemisphere and was often associated with themes of death and renewal. In order to coax the sun to return and bring warmth again, many of these cultures held festivals of light. You can learn more about some of those cultural traditions in the Night Sky Tourist podcast episode titled “Winter Solstice Special.”
February 1 is the midway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, and a time celebrated in an interesting variety of ways by many cultures.
The celebration of Imoblc originated in ancient Ireland and Scotland. Participants burned lamps and lighted bonfires in honor of the goddess Brigid. After Christianity reached the area, Brigid was adopted as a Saint by the church. The celebration maintains Imbolc’s emphasis on milk, fire, and purification.
Candelmas, a holiday from ancient Greece, was similar to Imbolc. It was also absorbed into Christianity, calling for purification and the lighting of candles to commemorate the return of the light after a dark winter.
But the celebration took an interesting turn in the United States of America in the form of Groundhog Day on February 2. It started with a Pennsylvania Dutch community who were immigrants from German-speaking areas of Europe. In Germany, Candelmas was also known as Badger Day. There was a tradition that if a badger left its den on February 2 and it was a sunny day, the badger would cast a shadow, predicting four more weeks of winter. In the U.S., Groundhog Day was celebrated as early as 1840, but the first official Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney was in 1887. The badger was replaced with a groundhog and the extended winter was changed to six weeks instead of four. The celebration drew a couple thousand participants until the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day was released in 1993. Attendance immediately grew to 10,000, and today, over 40,000 people show up for the event.
You can learn more about cross-quarter days in my blog article titled “The Little-Known Link between Holidays and Cross-Quarter Days.”
WINTER FULL MOONS
Many cultures around the world gave names to the Full Moons. Those names related to something happening in nature at that time. Here are some of the Full Moons of Winter according to various Native American cultures.
- DECEMBER: Cold Moon, Moon Before Yule, Long Night Moon
- JANUARY: Wolf Moon, Freeze Up Moon, Frost Exploding Moon
- FEBRUARY: Snow Moon, Bald Eagle Moon, Groundhog Moon, Hungry Moon
- MARCH: Worm Moon, Crow Comes Back Moon, Sugar Moon, Wind Strong Moon
Here’s how to visualize the ecliptic. Imagine that Earth’s equator could stretch like a rubber band way out into space until it touched the stars. There are twelve constellations spread across that band that astronomers call the ecliptic. You might have also heard it called the zodiac.
There are four constellations that dominate the ecliptic during the Winter months:
If you’re under light polluted skies, Aries and Cancer can be difficult to see because they’re made of somewhat dim stars. But Taurus and Gemini are large and fairly easy to see.
Use a stargazing app to help you locate all the stars of each of these. Take your time. The exploration is part of the fun.
- Orion, and don’t miss the nebula in Orion’s sword, a naked-eye, deep space object
- Canis Major (the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, is in Canis Major)
- Andromeda (check out the podcast episode about Andromeda HERE)
- Pleiades (this is actually part of Taurus, but it’s a distinct cluster of stars)
- Big Dipper (part of Ursa Major)
- Polaris (North Star, part of Ursa Minor)
Sirius is the brightest star in Earth’s night sky, and it’s visible all winter long. It’s located in the constellation Canis Major, the Big Dog. Some cultures have referred to the star as the Dog Star.
The ancient Egyptians used Sirius to figure out that Earth’s year was 365.25 days long. They carefully watched for it to rise in the east right before sunrise each year. Once it appeared before sunrise, they knew it was about the time for the Nile River to flood. This was good news as the river brought nutrients to their farmlands, meaning they could plant crops and have food for another year.
Since Sirius, the Dog Star, always appeared during the hottest part of the summer, the Egyptians thought that Sirius and the sun were combining their heat to make it hot on Earth. When it got hot like this, the Egyptians referred to it as the Dog Days of Summer. Yes, that phrase is as old as the pyramids.
However, it is winter, so we are seeing it after sunset during the coldest nights of the year.
TIPS FOR WINTER STARGAZING
To get the most out of your Winter stargazing experience, plan to spend a little extra time under the stars so your eyes have time to adapt to the darkness. Doing this will help you to see more stars. Here are some other tips to help your eyes adjust faster:
- Turn off all artificial lights around you.
- Avoid using your smartphone, but if you want to use a stargazing app, prep your phone in advance. Turn the screen brightness down and set it to the night mode to give your screen a redder hue instead of blue. Then, open your stargazing app so it will be ready to go.
- Avoid using a white flashlight. If you need help to safely navigate to your stargazing spot, use a red flashlight or attach red cellophane to your flashlight with a rubber band.
- If you think you’re going to try taking photos, turn off the camera flash before you head outside.
If you’re under light polluted skies, try planning a trip to a darker location for an evening. I promise that it will be worth the effort to see those more subtle constellations.
Make a list of things that will make your Winter stargazing more pleasurable. Here are some ideas to help you get your list started:
- Warm clothing- layers, jackets, warm footwear, hat, etc.
- Hand and feet warmers
- Plenty of blankets
- Hot drinks- hot chocolate, tea, Scandinavia’s glögg, or try a fun Moon Milk recipe
- Stargazing app on your smartphone
- Red flashlight
- Laser pointer- I use a green tactical laser, but don’t point at people or planes
- A stargazing episode of the Night Sky Tourist podcast
- * Optional- binoculars
- * Optional- telescope
And finally, find ways to engage all of your senses. This is a nature experience, and should be
enjoyed with more than just the eyes. These two podcast episodes will give you some great ideas for maximizing your time in nature at night:
- Episode 22- “Sketching the Night Sky with John Muir Laws”
- Episode 35- “Wild Nights Out with Chris Salisbury”
Happy stargazing under the Winter night sky.