What comes in threes this time of year? The Three Wisemen? The three holidays of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas? How about the three stars of the Belt of Orion!
The constellation of Orion is one of the most easily recognizable, well known and brightest of star patterns in the sky. It may be second only to the Big Dipper as a star pattern most people may know.
Orion, the mythological Hunter, takes prominence in the eastern sky on December evenings, just in time for the holidays. At around 9 p.m. in the first week of December, Orion is nearly half way up in the east-southeast. At this time of year, you won’t see Orion due south- and highest in the sky - until  nearly 1 a.m. To see it in the southern sky at 9 p.m., you must wait till late January.
Nevertheless, Orion is centerpiece to a realm of bright stars that just happen to populate the same area of sky, which make winter’s night the most glorious in this respect- although often very cold, depending on where you live.
We could talk about Orion’s famous red star, the brilliant Betelgeuse or the likewise brilliant blue-white Rigel at the other end. We could go on at length about the patch of stars known as Orion’s Sword, the center of which is the wonderful Great Orion Nebula and seen as a fuzzy “star” even to unaided eyes.
Probably most striking, however, is the three stars marking Orion’s “belt.” 
They are sometimes called the Three Kings of Three Sisters. Their names, from left to right (as seen from the Northern Hemisphere) are Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka, otherwise known as Zeta, Epsilon and Delta.
Although roughly the same brightness (close to +2nd magnitude), Alnilam, in the center (you might call it the Belt’s “Buckle”), is considerably farther away. Alnitak  is about 800 light years from the Sun; Mintaka is 900. Alnilam is 1,359 light years away. A light year is the distance light travels on one year. The light you see tonight from Alnilam left the star in 659 A.D. All three stars are far more luminous than the Sun and each are around 20 times as massive. (Distances are cited differently among various sources.)
Each of the Belt stars have at least one companion star in orbit around them.
The trio serve as handy “sky pointers.” Extend an imagined line down to the left to find the star Sirius, the brightest star of the night sky. Extend a line to the right to find the constellation Taurus, with the bright red-orange star Aldeberan next to the V-shaped star cluster the Hyades, and not far off, the bright star cluster, the Pleiades.
The Celestial Equator passes nearly through the Belt star at right (Mintaka). At Earth’s poles, the Celestial Equator rides the flat horizon. 
If you were Santa stargazing from the North Pole, you’d see the Belt stars skimming the horizon and only the northern half of Orion above them. Its the opposite at the South Pole; the Belt would be at the horizon and the constellation, upside down from our perspective, would show only the southern half of Orion. 
Be sure to see the brilliant planet Venus in the southwest after sunset, along with the crescent Moon this week. First quarter Moon is on Dec. 7th. Jupiter shines brightly in the southeast in morning twilight.

— Peter Becker is Managing Editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, PA. Notes are welcome at news@neagle.com. Please mention in what newspaper or web site you read this column.