December 22, 2011
You probably don’t pay too much attention to the imagery on the Christmas cards you receive or the paper wrapping your presents. You probably care more about the card’s message or the attractiveness of the gift wrap. And it’s probably just as well, since a new study in the journal Communicating Astronomy With the Public has found that depictions of the Moon on Christmas cards and gift wrap and in children’s Christmas books are often wrong.
Peter Barthel, an astronomer at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, was spurred to look into this issue after seeing a Unicef Christmas card in 2010 and a popular animated Advent e-calendar that year that both showed an unlikely Moon. The card depicted children decorating a Christmas tree beneath a waning crescent moon (one with its left-hand side lit) while the calendar scene showed people caroling, also under a waning Moon. The problem here is that the waning Moon doesn’t rise until 3 a.m. While it’s not impossible that these scenes could take place in the early morning hours, “it’s unlikely,” Barthel writes.
And so Barthel began to examine Christmas scenes on wrapping paper and cards and in books in both the Netherlands and the United States, two countries that have done much to shape our modern view of Santa Claus and Christmas. He found that 40 percent of the pictures in Dutch Christmas books and 65 percent of the Dutch gift wrap samples incorrectly showed the waning Moon. And this wasn’t a modern problem–six out of nine samples from a collection of older Dutch gift wrap also depicted, wrongly, the waning Moon.
American Christmas artists did better at showing a believable Moon in their images, but simply because they more often draw a full Moon in Christmas scenes. (The full Moon rises at sunset and shines over evening holiday scenes naturally.) That said, Barthel did find examples of incorrect waning Moon scenes. One booklet even showed a full Moon and a waning Moon in the same night.
Should we care? Barthel says yes:
The errors are innocent, somewhat comparable to incorrectly drawn rainbows, with the colour at the inside of the arc. Now watching beautiful phenomena like rainbows and moon crescents is one thing, but understanding them makes them all the lot more interesting. Moreover, understanding leads to knowledge which lasts.
And I don’t think it’s too much to ask for artists, especially ones drawing for children, to pay a little attention to accuracy in something like this. After all, if artists like Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch could take the time to use real moons and stars in their paintings, surely modern artists could as well.
Read more articles about the holidays with our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here
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