First quarter moon winter solstice

The first quarter moon peeks out through the clouds on December 21, 2020.

As Monday wore on and day turned to dusk, I felt a deep stirring, an eagerness to witness the once-in-a-lifetime celestial event, “The Great Conjunction.” Also dubbed “The Christmas Star,” some astronomers have even theorized that the “Star of Bethlehem” could have been a rare conjunction involving both Jupiter and Saturn.

Jupiter and Saturn have been visibly moving toward each other for days and on the evening of December 21 — which also marked the Winter Solstice —  these two planets were to be so close that they would appear to the naked eye as almost one, a bright star in the firmament.

Imagining that we could collectively witness an astronomical phenomenon similar to what the wise men saw thousands of years ago, activated in me  a cautious optimism for the coming year. Maybe this is precisely what humanity needs as 2020 draws to a close — to be guided by a spectacular star toward a new hope?

I knew I’d have to head to higher ground if I had a chance at seeing the “Christmas Star,” so I headed west out of town, emerging from the silhouette of the Wessington Foothills.  

When my tires turned north off Highway 34 and hit the gravel at Lookout Hill, I was surprised — and delighted —  to see a half a dozen cars parked at the top, all facing due southwest. I flipped my vehicle around, following suit. 

The cloud cover had me worried we might miss out, but it appeared to be passing quickly. I exited my vehicle, camera in hand, to take a few photos and get my Canon’s settings dialed in, using the first quarter moon peeking out through the clouds as a guide.  

While I waited out the clouds and dozens more cars arrived at the scene, I aimed my lens at the star above the water tower, hung by city workers earlier this month. The reflection of the lights served as a fiery beacon, cutting through the darkness. Across the highway, just as the sun was setting, a pink glow back-lit the “Merry Christmas To All” sign on Dennis and Sandy Beckman’s lawn.

I looked at my watch and wondered how long I’d have to wait out the clouds, stress building about my to-do list the night before press day. 

On cue, as if my stargazing neighbors atop Lookout Hill sensed my doubt, engines turned over and headlights began moving away from the viewing spot and back to town.  

After about 40 minutes of staring earnestly at the dark clouds in the southwest sky, deflated, I asked one of the locals parked nearby, Carrie Azure, if she’d mind giving me a call when, and if, the cloud cover dissipated. I’d asked the right person — intent on waiting out the clouds, she happily obliged. 

I headed down the hill to get home and settled in front of this week’s newspaper on my computer. After about 15 minutes, my phone rang. It was Carrie. 

“It’s here,” she exclaimed. “It’s shining!”

We quickly hopped into my vehicle and as we reached the south end of Dakota Avenue, enjoyed one fleeting, split-second glimpse of the phenomenon before it slid back under a bank of thick, inky clouds.

As I arrived again at Lookout Hill, it dawned on me that there was something special about dozens of people gathering together to gaze at the heavens. Awe replaced disappointment as I marveled that folks across the planet were doing precisely the same thing as us in Jerauld County, somehow connecting us, universally speaking.  

It’s no secret that 2020 has been a punishing year for most, lamented with difficulty, challenge and strife.

Enveloped in the darkness, anticipating a guiding light of hope in the form of the meeting of planets on our sky’s dome, brought me to examine the question: is it only until we experience intense and enduring darkness that we can truly find the light?

Amidst this dark and tumultuous year, light still manages to force its way through the thick haze of uncertainty that has blanketed 2020. It may appear dim, tired and weary — but it persists.

Through window visits and distanced Christmas caroling at the nursing home, radiance returns to the faces of residents. By surprise goodie drop-offs at a neighbor’s front door, brightness is brought. In helping others in need, happiness is found by both the recipient and the giver. Through safeguarding childhood innocence amid a pandemic with window teddy bear hunts and new, creative ways of preserving holiday magic, light persists.   

Light persists and through it, hope continues.   

And it’s here. It’s shining.