A Star to Mark a New Year

Sirius (bottom) and the constellation Orion (right) with its 3-star “belt.”                        (Hubble European Space Agency Image by Akira Fujii – spacetelescope.org)

Sirius is the brightest star in the sky.  Its common name is the Dog Star because it’s part of the constellation Canis Major (Greater Dog). “Sirius” means sparkling or scorching – a name given for its brightness in the night sky.  Sirius is almost twice as bright as Canopus, the next brightest star.

It reaches its highest point in the sky around the stroke of midnight every year and so tonight we can think of it as the New Year’s Star. Astronomers call this a midnight culmination of Sirius. What a cosmically strange coincidence it is that as we ring in the New Year, Sirius peaks in the sky. Is it a coincidence?

To find Sirius, I look North in Paradelle but at midnight I’m really looking up above. You should be able to find Orion’s three belt stars. Follow the belt’s line down to the left (west) and there is bright Sirius.

Like the sun, the stars rise in the east and travel westward across the sky.  Midway between rising and setting, the sun or any star reaches its highest point in the sky. Tonight, for Sirius, it will be at midnight.

At a distance of 2.64 parsecs (Yes, that’s a real thing), the Sirius system is one of Earth’s nearest neighbors. Sirius is gradually moving closer to our Solar System, so it will slightly increase in brightness over the next 60,000 years and then the distance will increase, and it will become fainter. Even then, astronomers say that it will still be the brightest star in the Earth’s night sky for the next 210,000 years.

A bust of Sopdet, the Egyptian goddess of Sirius

The heliacal rising of a star occurs annually when it briefly becomes visible above the eastern horizon at dawn just before sunrise after it has spent a season behind the sun rendering it invisible. Historically, the most important such rising is that of Sirius.

It was an important feature of the Egyptian calendar and marked the flooding of the Nile in Ancient Egypt. The ancient Egyptians worshipped the star as the goddess Sopdet, the guarantor of the fertility of their land. The Egyptian civil calendar was apparently initiated to have the New Year “Mesori” coincide with the appearance of Sirius.

Sirius (Spdt) in hieroglyphs

The rising meant the “dog days” of summer for the ancient Greeks. To the Polynesians, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, the star’s rise marked winter and was an important reference for their navigation around the Pacific Ocean.

All hail, Sirius!

Endless Summer


Just a few minutes ago, at 9:30 a.m. here in Paradelle, summer ended. I didn’t see or feel anything unusual, nor should I have expected to see or feel anything with this astronomical event.

It didn’t feel like summer when I woke up. The temperature outside was 45 degrees.

Things do happen in nature as we approach and pass the autumn equinox. I read that the black-capped chickadee starts to frantically collect seeds and hide them in hundreds of places. I knew that squirrels and the chipmunks in my yard have been gathering acorns and other things too. I also read that researchers have found that those little chickadees’ hippocampus in their tiny brains swell in size by 30 percent as new nerve cells pop up there. The hippocampus is the part of the brain which is responsible for spatial organization and memory which they need to hide and later find those seeds.

I don’t know that anything changes physically in humans but I know in myself there always seem to be changes as the seasons change.

Some people celebrated Rosh Hashanah last weekend – a new year. That calendar is not connected to the equinox. The exact date of Rosh Hashanah varies every year, since it is based on the Hebrew Calendar, where it begins on the first day of the seventh month.

2020 has been a bad year. The pandemic has been a global problem but many personal problems have also occurred because of it or unrelated to it. I’m not Jewish but I would like a new year to start now.

But the problems of yesterday are not going to disappear because of a “new year” or the equinox.

My friend of 51 years, Bob, died a week ago after a long, slow battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was home with hospice for the month and he passed gently from this world with his wife and children there.

Five decades ago his wife loaned me her copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. I was 16 and it was my introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. I have been exploring ever since. One thing that has stayed with me from that book is the idea of bardo which is the state of existence after death and before one’s next birth. Your consciousness is not connected with a physical body and experiences a variety of phenomena.

I don’t know that I believe in a next birth but Buddhists believe the bardo lasts for 7 – 49 days (7 X 7) during which time that consciousness can wander the Earth.  I have been lighting a candle every night at sunset just in case Bobby needs some light to find his way. I’m looking for a sign from him that I don’t really expect to appear.

Bobby was, among many other things, a surfer – a better surfer than I ever was back then. We bonded like brothers through surfing, music, playing guitar, cars and a crazy connection to the humor of Jean Shepherd. On the surf side, we both liked a surfing film from 1966 called The Endless Summer.

The film follows two surfers around the world in search of the perfect wave.  The film’s title comes from the idea that if you had enough time (and money),you could follow summer up and down the world (northern to southern hemisphere and back), and it would be endless.

Summer is not endless, nor is a life. The Earth makes its way around the Sun and tilts along the way in a manner that can be measured and predicted in a way that we can never do with our lives.  That celestial journey will also have an end. It’s the way of this universe.

We think of this day as the autumn equinox but it is really just a moment. A good life always seems to end too soon. Though there is no endless season, I think it’s still worth searching for that perfect wave. I think Bobby might have found it while he was here.

The plan is to have a “paddle out” -a traditional Hawaiian tribute to the life and legacy of people who passed away – on LOng Beach Island where he surfed most often. Bobby’s ashes will be set upon the waves and maybe the tides will carry them north and south and, at least symbolically, he will be in that endless summer.

Endless Summer poster public domain

Does the New Decade Begin Tomorrow?

happy 2020

Here’s a post for the penultimate day of 2019. Tomorrow is 2020 and the start of a new decade. Or is it? There is real disagreement on when a new decade begins.

Some people say that the new decade “officially” begins with years ending in 0 while others say a new decade begins in years ending in 1. Is there a correct answer? Generally, people would say that the decade of the 90s began in 1990, 1890 et al.

You can also consider when centuries and millennia begin in the same way. The official answer on that is that the 21st century and the third millennium began on New Year’s Day 2001. That’s because in our modern anno domini time reckoning system there is no year zero. Year 1 BC was followed by year AD 1. But there was certainly much celebration for the new millennium on January 1, 2000.

With decades, it’s more about language than about calendars. Unlike centuries, we would never say “the 200th decade” to mean the next decade.  (Technically, the upcoming decade is the 203rd decade. but I am not getting into that.) Chances are we will call this next decade “the twenties” though that might confuse it with the 1920s (the “roaring twenties”).

It will be widely accepted that the new decade will begin when the ball falls at midnight on January 1, 2020, but you can legitimately celebrate again a year later.

If you say to me that something happened in “the 90s” I assume you mean the 1990s and not 1890s. But what do you call that time from 2000-2009?  In North America, the term “the aughts” was used (but not by me) and other English speaking countries used “the noughts” or “the noughties.”

And the 2010 -2019 has been referred to as “the teens,” “the teenies,” “the teensies” and “the tens.” I don’t like any of those names. I would probably opt for  “the twenty-tens” (“the 2010s”) but my browser’s spell-grammar checker and Grammarly app doesn’t seem to like any of those. Did we go through ten years and we still haven’t decided what to call it? I suppose this decade that is ending will be named in hindsight. Happy 2020, readers!

Happy New Year. Again.

Today is January 14, 2019, according to the Gregorian calendar that you are likely to use, but in the Julian calendar this is the start of a new year.

The Julian calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C. The Gregorian January 14, 2019 is January 1 in the Julian calendar. So, today is the Julian New Year, also known as the Old New Year or the Orthodox New Year. The Christian Eastern Orthodox Church still uses the Julian calendar.

The Julian calendar was used worldwide for over 16 centuries. Not a bad run.

Another place that you will still see the Julian calendar used is with the dates of astronomical events that occurred before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582.


The date for the introduction of the Julian calendar was October 15, 1582 but, as you might guess, introducing a new calendar to the world could not really happen overnight. England kept the Julian calendar for another two centuries.

It was Pope Gregory who decreed that October 4, 1582 on the Julian calendar would be followed by October 15, 1582. That means that in 1582, there was no October 5 through 14. Strange days.

The First Person You See in the New Year

Who will be the first person you encounter on New Year’s Day? There is a kind of tradition in taking careful note of who that person turns out to be.

There are even several words for the first person to walk through your door on New Year’s Day. One word for this person is quaaltagh. That particular word is used on the Isle of Man – a tiny island halfway between Britain and Ireland in the Irish Sea. It was borrowed into English in the 1800s from Manx, the Celtic-origin language spoken on the Isle of Man. The belief is that the first person you see (I suspect if that is one of your housemates that might not count since it is so likely) will have some bearing on the events of the year to come. In doing a bit of research, I found that some people seem to feel that it might be the first person to enter your house on Christmas. No one entered my house on Christmas Day because my wife and I went out for the day, so I will have to pay attention on January 1.

A variation on this is the custom of going in a group from door-to-door at Christmas or on New Year’s Day and making a request for food or some gifts in return for a song. Sort of a trick-or-treat Halloween combined with caroling or wassailing.

I also read that the person can be the first one you meet after leaving home.

The etymology comes from quaail (meeting) plus -agh, a suffix forming adjectives and the insertion of -t to form a noun.

A more modern term for this person is a “first-footer” as in the first to step foot into your home.

But there is a third way to label this visitor that comes from an old Yorkshire folklore which calls this person a “lucky-bird.”

I found an assortment of preferences for whom this person should be no matter what label you use if you want their appearance to lead to some success in the new year. This very old tradition favors men as being most fortuitous. In most places, a dark-haired man is favored. Some regions believe you should want him to be a bachelor. Then again, one article I read said that he should bring a gift of coal, but that is a really out-of-favor gift these days. By the late 1800s, whiskey became the preferred gift.

I don’t know anyone who follows this tradition. It’s completely new to me. I suspect that if I had lived more than 200 years ago in the UK some place where this tradition was honored, I might have used it to my advantage. I imagine that a bachelor who was interested in a young lady might have showed up early on New Year’s Day at her front door bearing gifts of coal and whiskey. Those gifts might have had more effect on her father (an important person to win over when you are courting), but then again we could crank up the coal fire and pour a few drinks and who knows what might happen.

Leave a comment if you try out this old tradition this New Year and if the quaaltagh/first-footer/lucky-bird does turn out to be significant in your life.

Watching the Mid-night Culmination of Sirius on New Year’s Eve

Image via Oliver Jeffers

On this New Year’s Eve, I will look up to the night sky to the brightest star there. That is Sirius, in the constellation Canis Major. You can see it in the evening every year at this time from almost all parts of Earth. Tonight is not only the calendar end of year but, in one of those nice celestial coincidences, it is the midnight culmination of Sirius. That is when it is highest in the sky at midnight, which occurs only once every year.

I need to point out that this midnight is mid-night and not the drop-the-ball midnight we will celebrate tonight. What I will call mid-night is the actual middle of the night, which is midway between sunset and sunrise. For my little piece of Paradelle, that will be at 9:18 pm ET.

If you go to http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/mrst.php you can get a quick calculation done for your little place on Earth for the times of the rise, set, and transit for the Sun and all major solar system bodies and selected bright stars.

From the Northern Hemisphere, we will look toward the south to see Sirius shining brightly on a clear night. (From the Southern Hemisphere, look overhead or high in the north.)

Sirius, the Dog Star, gets its name from a romanization of the Greek Seirios, meaning “glowing” or “scorching.” It appears almost twice as bright as the next brightest star (Canopus). Sirius appears bright because of its “intrinsic luminosity” and also because of its proximity to Earth.  It is 2.6 parsecs away. I know that sounds like Star Trek talk, but the Sirius system is one of Earth’s near neighbours. Sirius is gradually moving closer to the Solar System, so it will slightly increase in brightness over the next 60,000 years. After that time, its distance will begin to increase and it will become fainter. But Sirius doesn’t have to worry about losing its brightest star ranking for 210,000 years.

What we see is a bit of an illusion because “Sirius” is a binary star system, consisting of a white main-sequence star, called Sirius A, and a faint white dwarf companion of called Sirius B. Sirius A is about twice as massive as the Sun and 25 times more luminous than the Sun. Sirius B was actually bigger but consumed its resources and became a red giant. Then, it shed its outer layers and collapsed into its current state as a white dwarf. That happened around 120 million years ago.

All this makes me feel both very tiny, and also part of something so large that I cannot really comprehend it all. So, I will simply go out tonight on this very cold night and look up at Sirius with great wonder.


“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”
― Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions