Happy Russian Orthodox Christmas!

A group of people hold a Russian Christmas star on a beach in Unalaska in the early 1900s.
A group of people hold a Russian Christmas star on a beach in Unalaska in the early 1900s.

Many Alaska Native families will celebrate the Russian Orthodox Christmas this next week, beginning on January 7.

This observation of Christ’s birth began after Christmas celebrations were banned following the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Russian families turned decorating trees and giving presents into New Year’s traditions.

Alaska’s First People have a long history with the Russian Orthodox Church, as Native cultures were heavily influenced following the arrival of Russian fur traders in 1741. And although Russia sold Alaska to America in 1867, the Russian Orthodox Church continues to be a vital part of Native culture in many Alaska communities.

The common symbols of the Russian Orthodox Christmas are a decorated fir tree, baby Jesus and a star – like the one held by this group near Unalaska in the early 1900s. The celebration lasts for a week and includes church services, fireworks and special foods.

Part of the tradition involves “starring,” also called slaviq, in which a brightly decorated star is carried from house to house and carolers sing a song outside until the family invites them in.

The singers face the folks inside the home and twirl the star as they sing carols, sometimes in English, Russian, Slavonic, Yup’ik, Alutiiq, Dena’ina and other Alaska Native languages. After the carolers eat food the family has prepared, they move on to other houses where the ritual is repeated until late into the night. Sometimes presents are given, as well.

Some of my Native friends tell me that they travel from village to village with their stars and caroling. A bonfire on the last day signals the end of the festivities until the next year.

Happy Russian Orthodox Christmas to all!