Christmas Eve is the "big night" to all those who celebrate Christmas around the globe. Most traditions pick Dec. 24. With visions of Santa and his sleigh being pulled by eight (nine by Walt Disney's count) reindeer, we usually picture a nice moon and stars above, or else possibly snowflakes. Did you know there actually was a constellation of stars known as the Reindeer?
The French astronomer Pierre Charles Le Monnier created the constellation in 1736, to commemorate the expedition of Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis to Lapland. This was a scientific trek to the arctic to prove that the Earth is oblate. Some of us are oblate by eating too many Christmas cookies. What that means is the planet, because of its rate of spin, is wider at the equator than between the poles - so the planet is slightly squat and not a perfect sphere.
Use that as an explanation next time someone talks about oblateness and cookies. If it works, pass me the cookies. Lep Kuchen are especially tasty this time of year.
Back to the Reindeer. Le Monnier connected several stars in the northern sky and called it Rangifer.
He could have used Comet or Vixen or Cupid, but no, he decided Rangifer would be just right. Another name was used for the constellation, Tarandus. Santa knew not of that name either. Both words mean "reindeer" in Latin. "Rangifer" is the generic name of the reindeer, and "tarandus" is the specific name.
The constellation, which never quite caught on, was created among dim stars between the constellations of Cassiopeia and Camelopardalis. The former is the well-known "W" shaped (or "M" depending on when you look) constellation, and is a mythological queen. Camelopardalis represents a giraffe, created around 1612. Cassiopeia is an ancient constellation. Both of these were accepted among the 88 official constellations we know today.
The International Astronomical Union (IAU), in 1922, established the list, abandoning numerous lesser-known groups proposed over the centuries.
Perhaps more than one IAU member was a candidate for coal in his or her stocking for letting Rangifer the reindeer go.
Another small constellation next to the Reindeer was also dismissed, Custos Messium the Harvest Keeper. This group was created in 1775 to honor Charles Messier, a dedicated comet hunter who drew up a famous list of "deep sky objects" (star clusters, hazy nebulae, etc.) which stargazers worldwide use to this day.
Full moon is on Dec. 28.
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Keep looking up!