In the weeks before winter break, the University of Wisconsin- Stevens Point Physics and Astronomy Department is offering two free holiday-related programs open to all ages on Sunday afternoons. The Allen F. Blocher Planetarium, in the UWSP Science building, is hosting "Winter Wonders" and "Season of Light" to give a look at different traditions and customs practiced around the world and how they relate to astronomical events that shape present-day holiday customs.
"Winter Wonders" is a family-friendly program that follows two teenage girls as they learn about various religious events during the time of the winter solstice. The program also examines the solstice customs of the peoples of central Africa, China, Native Americans, the Inuit, the Incas and more. The program ends after looking at a few of the monuments that the ancient people built to the winter solstice.
The second program, "Season of Light," is an examination of prominent holiday customs such as the Yule log, Christmas lights, the lighting of the Menorahs, and, in Mexico, luminarias, where they are believed to light the path for Mary and Joseph. "Season" also traces the evolution of Santa Claus from Sinterklaas in the Netherlands and Belgium all the way up to the present-day icon clad in red and white. The program finishes with a look at what might have been the Christmas star which, according to legend, led the three wise men to the newborn Jesus.
"Other than seeing the dark night sky with all the constellations, [her favorite part] was the explanation of the ceremonies of the different countries," said Mary-Lou Susan, a Stevens Point local who attended the "Season of Light" program.
The holiday programs are not the only shows presented in the Planetarium. On Mondays at 8 p.m., The Night Skies of Fall takes a detailed look at the stars and constellations that are visible outside during fall and early winter. After the program, visitors are allowed to view some of what they saw during the program through the UWSP observatory’s telescope, weather permitting.
The shows on Sunday, Dec. 4, were filled largely with adults and children, leaving some wondering why there weren’t more UWSP students attending the programs.
"I am surprised that there aren’t more students, it’s a great show and it’s free," Susan said.
Dr. Randy W. Olson, director of the Blocher Planetarium and astronomy professor at UWSP, says that student attendance varies in such a way that’s unpredictable, but in the end still quite a few visitors, students and community members alike are attracted to the planetarium each year.
"We do have quite a few visitors when you take a look at the numbers. We have somewhere between 12 and 14 thousand visitors every year," Olson said.
"Winter Wonders" and "Season of Light" will occur two more times before winter break, on Dec. 11 and Dec. 18 with "Winter Wonders" starting at 2 p.m. and "Season of Light" starting at 3:15 p.m. with doors opening 15 minutes prior to the start of the programs.
The Blocher Planetarium programs will continue in spring with "Skyquest," an educational program for all ages detailing one woman’s journey to become an astronomer starting from a young age. The second program in spring will be "Journey to the Stars," which takes a look at the distances that exist in the universe and how astronomers discovered some of the wonders in the universe.