Christmas Eve is the “big night” to all those who celebrate Christmas around the globe. Most traditions pick Dec. 24. With visions of Santa and his sleigh being pulled by eight (nine if you count Rudolph) reindeer, we usually picture a nice moon and stars above, or else possibly snowflakes. Did you know there actually was a constellation of stars known as the reindeer?

Not only that, the reindeer is in the NORTH!

The French astronomer Pierre Charles Le Monnier created the constellation in 1736, to commemorate the expedition of Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis to Lapland. This was a scientific trek to the arctic to prove that the Earth is oblate. Some of us are oblate by eating too many Christmas cookies. What that means is the planet, because of its rate of spin, is wider at the equator than between the poles - so the planet is slightly squat and not a perfect sphere (fast spinning Jupiter is noticeably squat).

Use that as an explanation next time someone talks about oblateness and cookies. If it works, pass me the cookies. Lep Kuchen is especially tasty this time of year.

Back to the reindeer. Le Monnier connected several stars in the northern sky and called it Rangifer. He could have used Comet or Vixen or Cupid, but no, he decided Rangifer would be just right. Another name was used for the constellation, Tarandus. Santa knew not of that name either. Both words mean “reindeer” in Latin. “Rangifer” is the generic name of the reindeer, and “Tarandus” is the specific name.

Although it is hard to even see the dim stars that your imagination might trace as a reindeer, here’s how to see the area of the night sky where Rangifer is found.

In early evening in late December, say around 7 p.m., look due north. As seen from mid-northern latitudes, first see the five stars making the “M” of Cassiopeia, high up. This is easy to spot. About half way down in the northern sky, you will find the easily seen North Star, or Polaris.

If you don’t have hills, trees or houses in the way, look low in the north at this point to find the famed Big Dipper.

The faint stars of Rangifer the reindeer are immediately above the North Star, between the North Star and the right side of the “M” of Cassiopeia.

If your sky is light polluted by town, shopping mall and neighborhood lights, you won’t likely see ANY stars where Rangifer is supposed to be. It’s also a good idea to let your eyes adapt to the darkness (wait a few minutes after leaving a lit house and don’t stare at a bright light). There are several stars here of fifth and ninth magnitude, visible to unaided eyes in reasonably dark skies, and easily found with binoculars.

As seen from the icy north pole, where Santa is said to live, Rangifer is nearly exactly straight over head, being so close to the North Star.

This area of the sky is now split between the boundaries of Cepheus and Cassiopeia, as seen on detailed star atlases. It is adjacent to the very dim constellation Camelopardalis the giraffe.

Another small constellation next to the reindeer was also dismissed, Custos Messium the harvest keeper.

There were numerous little known proposed constellations that never caught on. The International Astronomical Union (IAU), in 1922, established a list of 88 constellations we recognize today, abandoning the others such as Rangifer.

Perhaps more than one IAU member was a candidate for coal in his or her stocking for letting Rangifer the reindeer go.

Poor Rangifer! Perhaps kids who write letters to Santa should ask him to let Rangifer join his herd, and make an even 10. After all, Rangifer really DOES know how to fly, circling the North Star once every day and night.

New moon is on Dec. 26.

Now back to those cookies…

Keep looking up!

Peter Becker is managing editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at news@neagle.com. Please mention in what newspaper or website you read this column.