ORONO, Maine — Austin Kessler knows a lot about space. He has read a lot of books, and he has even seen the planets through a telescope.
But even experts can learn something new, as Kessler discovered Sunday afternoon at the University of Maine’s Hayden F. Jordan Planetarium.
“I learned that [Jews] light candles each day of Hanukkah,” said Kessler, 7, who is in first grade at the Vine Street School in Bangor.
Kessler was one of 19 visitors who watched “Season of Light,” a planetarium program about the links between the ancient winter solstice celebrations and modern holiday traditions.
Amy Chadbourne, a senior English major, started the program with an explanation of the winter solstice using images of Stonehenge, which she said were compiled recently by UMaine students.
“During the winter solstice, the sun takes its shortest trip through the sky,” she said. “That means it’s the shortest day. That also means the sun is at its lowest point in the sky.”
Chadbourne then used the planetarium’s star projector, which is nicknamed Franklin, to point out several winter-sky constellations such as Cassiopeia, Andromeda and Orion. The theater went black as the ceiling lit up with stars, drawing a chorus of wows from the audience.
After Chadbourne made her presentation, the “Season of Light” program opened with the history of solstice celebrations around the world.
Each civilization had its own way of marking the lengthening of days and increase in light.
“It has always been our custom to turn this time of darkness into a season of light,” the narrator said.
Light is crucial in holiday celebrations of Christmas and Hanukkah, as Kessler noted. Hanukkah lights commemorate the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago after it was demolished and that one day of oil lasted eight days.
The yule log, traditionally lit on Christmas Eve, and the candles on Christmas trees all are references to warmth and light that also were celebrated at the solstice.
Even though it’s not clear when Jesus was born, the program posed, Christmas is celebrated around the time of the solstice because it already was a popular time of celebration.
“It would have made good sense,” said the narrator. “The winter solstice was already celebrated as a time of rebirth, of new light for the dark world. By adopting this date, the church could exchange the light of the sun for their light of the world.”
Kessler attended Sunday’s show with his friend Jack Anderson, also 7, and Anderson’s mother, Elizabeth. The Andersons are from Exeter, N.H., and are visiting Elizabeth Anderson’s parents, who live in Franklin.
Elizabeth Anderson said she learned something about the Christmas story during the presentation about the Christmas star.
The narrator said that rather than the star being a comet or meteor shower, as has been posed, it could have been a planetary event in which the planets Venus and Jupiter were so close they might have produced a strong light together — strong enough to have launched the three wise men on their journey.
“I didn’t know about the star,” she said. “It’s really fascinating. It makes sense. [The wise men] were so smart, they wouldn’t have been thrown by some common event in the sky.”
Chadbourne understands the fascination people have with the planetarium. After all, she started visiting the facility as a 5-year-old from Old Town.
“I’ve definitely grown up with this place,” she said. “Some of the shows I’m doing now I grew up with. It’s cool to be able to see both sides of it.”
For more information about the Maynard F. Jordan Planetarium, go to www.galaxymaine.com.