Membership Matters

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The Surprising History Behind a Holiday Tradition

While it’s not unusual to catch a glimpse of the iconic McDonnell Planetarium lit up at night, there’s one distinct look unique to the last couple months of the year. Outside the Planetarium in November and December, you’ll spot a bow wrapped around the building’s hyperboloid shape.

For many St. Louisans, the sight of the Planetarium bow shows that it’s the holiday season. “I’ve heard people say that the holidays don’t truly begin until they see the bow up on the Planetarium,” says Will Snyder, manager of the James S. McDonnell Planetarium.

The bow is a piece of Science Center history dating back to some of the earliest days of the Planetarium. And while it’s become an annual sight (save for one year), its origin might come as a surprise.

On December 17, 1966, just three years after the Planetarium opened, locals noticed a strange sight: a bow and six-inch ribbon tied around the curved roof of the building. And who would do such a thing?

A large card nearby revealed the pranksters. The card read, “Merry Christmas St. Louis. Washington University School of Architecture.”

While the bow was certainly a surprise, the people of St. Louis loved the decoration so much that it continued into the following years. Today, it can still be seen, making it a seasonal tradition that, despite the winter weather, warms the hearts of people across our community.

Fun Facts

The McDonnell Planetarium was designed by world-renowned architect Gyo Obata, who still lives in St. Louis (and has contributed more recently to the Science Center by designing the GROW Pavilion). Thanks to Obata’s eye-catching design, perhaps it’s not so surprising that the Planetarium drew the attention of architecture students.

Typically, the bow goes up in late November prior to Thanksgiving and takes approximately four to five hours to put up. The bow stays displayed on the Planetarium until the first or second week of January, depending on the weather.

While the original bow is no longer displayed, the Science Center has a newer (and larger) red bow that goes up each year. The current one measures between four and five feet wide for the ribbon and twenty feet wide for the bow.

Keeping Guest Experience at the Center

This year, the Science Center closed temporarily because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reopening with new city and Centers for Disease Control guidelines for public spaces, the Science Center experience members and guests are used to could have felt drastically different.

Michelle McGruder, manager of visitor services, tells how she and her team have kept service at the forefront for members and guests alike.

How have you and the Visitor Services team kept that welcoming feeling during COVID?

It can be challenging to communicate through a face mask, so we’ve learned to use body language to welcome people inside and get important messages across.

One thing we’ve learned is that you have to use a little more enthusiasm when speaking through a mask. Plus, welcoming hand gestures show members and guests that you’re excited to see them.

What’s one thing you’d like members and guests to know about coming back to the Science Center?

We care about both your safety and your experience. The world can seem strange right now, but we welcome you back to a familiar place to learn and grow safely together.

How did it feel to reopen the building?

Honestly for me, once the door reopened, it felt like we never closed. I was so proud of the team when they expressed they were ready to jump back in and welcome our members and guests back inside.