The importance of this season, which is so special on Earth, extends out into space, and astronauts have been celebrating it in their own way in outer space for several decades now. Here is a little bit of history and some stories about what Christmas is like away from the planet.
The first Christmas celebrations in space
The first time that Christmas was celebrated in space was in 1968, a very special year with a lot of media attention on space exploration because Apollo 8 took the first photograph of the Earth from space, and a Christmas video was made in which different astronauts read the first 10 verses of Genesis as the moon glowed in the background .
According to NASA, around one thousand million people in 64 countries watched the Christmas Eve broadcast and, as he emerged from lunar orbit, the astronaut James A. Lovell announced, “Please be informed, there is a Santa Claus!”.
You can watch the video of this first Christmas broadcast from space here.
Another landmark in space festivities was the first time that Christmas decorations were hung in a space craft. It was the idea of the astronauts Gerald P. Carr, William R. Pogue and Edward G. Gibson for Christmas 1973 and 1974, when they made their own tree out of food containers and decorated it with coloured stickers.
(Photo courtesy of NASA)
Christmas in space today
Over the years, space missions have become longer and Christmas celebrations, along with Thanksgiving or Halloween, are more common and so are the preparations for them. Another substantial change is that new technology enables us to see more and more images, and the astronauts can stay in closer contact with their loved ones.
Today they can have video conferences with their families, and it is completely normal for both NASA and the International Space Station, and the astronauts personally send messages on their social media with photographs of their Christmases in space. You will probably be able to see them during these holidays in the Twitter profile of NASA and the ISS.
Sometimes we just want normality and quiet, which is why there have been such homely celebrations as those of 2017 when the astronauts got together to watch an episode of the Star Wars saga, “The Last Jedi”. This is according to the Twitter account of the ISS astronaut Mark T. Vande Hei.
The way that the festive season is celebrated depends on the crew, and in general they decide in accordance with the traditions and preferences of all the members. According to the NASA astronaut Dr. Andrew Morgan on CNN, who spent Christmas 2019 on the space station, they played Christmas music in the whole station and showed classic Christmas movies on the days leading up to the holidays to create a festive atmosphere. They also made a projection of a Yuletide log burning in a chimney to give the space station a cosy, Christmassy feeling.
To adapt to more cultures, Christmas was celebrated twice: on the 25th December and on the 7th January, which is when the Orthodox Russian Church celebrates it.
What do they do to give each other gifts? Clearly, they have to plan well in advance! Morgan said, “we had to think a year or more ahead to make sure we could buy, wrap and keep the gifts secret all that time”.
New Year in space
Did you realise that the astronauts see 16 sunrises every day? When does the year really start for them? In general, they coordinate with Greenwich Mean Time, but on a special occasion like this they call each mission control when the time arrives to wish them a happy new year.
In some countries, like Russia, the New Year is even more important than Christmas, so they celebrate the first day of the year in Russian style. According to Andrew Morgan, they made a hearty meal for their Russian colleagues and watched a film that is traditional in that country, called “The Irony of Fate”. “To experience that with our Russian crew mates was extra special,” Morgan said. “That exchange of those traditions and experiencing each others’ holidays and sharing that with each other across an international crew, that will be the thing I take away from that experience. It embodies everything good about international cooperation and sharing traditions across different countries.”
Last Christmas in space
We still don’t know how this Christmas and New Year will be for the astronauts currently working in space, but we do know what they were like last year.
For the last holiday season, at Christmas 2020, NASA and SpaceX successfully launched one of their Dragon capsules to the International Space Station to take them, among other things, a Christmas feast. It consisted of roast turkey stuffed with cornbread, cranberry sauce, shortbread cookies and icing, as reported by Associated Press.
How Christmas on Earth looks from space
Christmas is celebrated across nearly the whole planet, and among its defining features are the lights, which are so many and so bright that they can be seen from space.
In the NASA video we are sharing below, we can see the patterns of Christmas lights during the festive season, obtained by the VIIRS instrument on the Suomi NPP satellite, a joint mission between NASA and NOAA. The study shows the different use of energy depending on the cultures and reveals the increased brightness of the holiday season.
As we can see, humans, wherever they are, like to celebrate these days. Whether it is a homely affair or a traditional feast, Christmas has been a feature of life in outer space since that first time in 1968 when Apollo 8 decided to celebrate it and share it with everyone back on Earth.