While most people celebrated Christmas on Dec. 25 last week, many Alaskans from the Pribilof Islands to Nikiski to Sitka will celebrate next week. The Russian Orthodox Church still observes the Julian calendar, and each day on that calendar occurs 13 days after the corresponding day on the modern Gregorian calendar – so January 7 is their day of rejoicing the birth of Jesus.
Alaska’s Native people and the Russian Orthodox Church go back to the mid-1700s when Russian fur traders first arrived. These men were from a culture that believed in Christianity and they shared their beliefs with the Natives. And it wasn’t long before Russian Orthodox priests began arriving in the vast land.
The first Russian Orthodox missionaries came to Alaska in 1794. These priests believed in learning the language and culture of Alaska’s people, and then teaching them in their own dialect. They also shared their customs for celebrating Christmas.
Christmas is more of a religious festival in Orthodox communities. It’s traditional to light candles in honor of Jesus, as light of the world. Then people walk in procession to a sea, lake or river where a priest will bless the water as part of an outdoor ceremony, as in the photo above. Some people will take the blessed water back to their homes.
Christmas is a time of reflection and renewal, as well as a time to affirm the bonds of friendship and family. Villagers celebrate for an entire week with church services, fireworks and special foods.
Part of their week long celebration includes “starring,” which also is called slaviq. People make huge “stars of Bethlehem” out of wood, crepe paper and tassels and then twirl these stars as they travel from home to home and village to village.
They sing songs outside of a house and then are invited inside to sing carols – sometimes in English, Russian, Slavonic, Yup’ik, Alutiiq, Dena’ina and other Native languages. The group then feasts on food the family has prepared.
After eating, the family joins the carolers and they all go off to another house to repeat the ritual until late at night. Those chosen to be the last home on the celebration circuit will have a huge houseful of guests!
Aunt Phil’s Trunk wishes a very merry Christmas to all our Russian Orthodox Alaska history fans on January 7!