As celestial events go, it no doubt paled in comparison to the Star of Bethlehem. Yet, skywatchers in much of North America were treated Monday to a rarity of rarities: A partial solar eclipse on Christmas Day.
At its midday peak, the moon’s shadow sweeping across the Northeast United States obliterated as much of the 60 percent of the sun, turning the solar disc into an odd-looking yellow crescent.
Viewing was best in New England and the upper Midwest, while clouds obscured the view through much of the nation’s midsection.
A Three-Century Wait
How unusual is a Christmas solar eclipse? The last one occurred in 1954, and was visible only in parts of Africa. The next partial Christmas eclipse, according to Fred Espenak of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, will occur on December 25, 2307.
In Boston, where the temperature barely reached 20 degrees, only a few die-hards were out on the historic Boston Common to watch the eclipse.
“It seemed important — just the coincidence of it being on Christmas Day,” said Pat Rowell, talking through her scarf. She and her husband Ken were walking back to their home in the nearby Beacon Hill neighborhood and planned to return with a small paper device they had made for safe viewing of what they said was their first eclipse.
At first, Francisco Healda said he “couldn’t care about the eclipse.” But then he remembered buying a pair of fancy, eclipse-viewing glasses in Mexico to watch an eclipse there 10 years ago, and decided he might try to dig them out of his Cambridge apartment.
Viewing a solar eclipse with the naked eye can be extremely dangerous. Experts recommend using special equipment, such as a welder’s lens or a pinhole projector, to protect the eyes and get the best view.
Ron Jencks was in awe when he finally made out the chunk the moon’s shadow had taken out of the sun. The Providence, R.I., man was just out taking a walk when he was told the partial solar eclipse was at its peak.
Not an Everyday Occurence
“That’s amazing,” he said. “That whole piece is gone. It’s not something you see every day.”
Jay Brausch, a Glen Ullin, N.D., man who has been photographing and writing about celestial movements regularly since 1981, said he caught a good glimpse of the eclipse, even though clouds had threatened to ruin the show.
He took pictures while standing outside, where the temperature was 14 degrees.
“I’m glad I got some results out of it,” Brausch said. “I wasn’t skunked and I got more than a good gander anyway, with natural cloud cover acting as a natural filter.”
In Baltimore, about 200 people showed up at the Maryland Science Center, where visitors looked at the eclipse through the planetarium’s telescope. The telescope was outfitted with special filters and visitors also were given welding masks.
Chestnuts were roasted using a parabolic mirror powered by the rays of the eclipse.
“That was worth it, that was fantastic,” said Cindy Ordes of Baltimore.
Others showed less enthusiasm.
“It is so cold, it is so cold,” Spencer Pontell, 7, chanted as he walked toward the Science Center with his mother, Melanie Pontell.
“It’s a little education while he’s off from school,” she said.
Jim O’Leary, director of the planetarium, said 14 staff and volunteers agreed to show up on Christmas to stage the event, which attracted about 200.
“Everybody on the staff felt the same way. This is what we do and everyone wanted to share the event,” O’Leary said.
Some Ecstatic About Sighting
In Southboro, police Officer Kenneth Fitzgerald said he was “ecstatic” at the sighting.
“We’re approximately at 25 percent ... looking forward to going all the way to 65 percent,” Fitzgerald said while gazing at the growing eclipse Monday afternoon.
Fitzgerald brought to work special viewing glasses he’d ordered from an astronomy magazine in anticipation of watching the eclipse. The glasses had paper frames with heavy fog lenses.
The officer said he added astronomy to his list of hobbies after he began working the late-night shift at the police department.
“I work midnight to 8 a.m., so there’s not much to do when you work nights,” he said. Monday, he was blessed with the day shift.
Where skies were clear, the eclipse was visible in the continental United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Residents of Baffin Island, in far northeastern Canada, saw the biggest bite taken out of the sun: About 72 percent at maximum phase.
Only about 20 percent of the sun was covered in the Southwestern United States.
Lauren Likkel, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, said solar eclipses usually are visible from any particular spot on Earth only once or twice a decade.
“What are the odds of having a partial eclipse on the last Christmas Day of the millennium?” Likkel asked.