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Episode 37: Frontiers of Faith, Russian Orthodox Christmas

By KTVA Alaska 9:07 AM January 11, 2016

While Dec. 25 is the day most Alaskans celebrate Christ’s birthday, Jan. 7 is the day for the Russian Orthodox, who use the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian. Jan. 7 is also the start of a week of festivities.

The Russian Orthodox faith is one of the oldest in Alaska, more than 200 years old. And while it’s practiced in communities across the state, Father Michael Oleksa says there’s very little that’s truly “Russian” in what’s popularly known as “Russian Christmas”  — that the celebration here is a mix of European and Alaska Native traditions, which merged and took on a unique character of their own.

Father Oleska, a well-known lecturer on cross-cultural education, is our guest. If you haven’t heard him before, he’s an encyclopedia of information but also a wonderful storyteller.  Also check out this week’s Frontiers Web Extra, which features an extended interview with Father Oleksa. Truly, I could listen to him talk for hours.

Also on this week’s program, we take you on a tour of St. Tikhon, a Russian Orthodox parish tucked into the Anchorage Hillside. It may look rather plain on the outside, but inside it’s filled with ornate frescoes and icons. Photojournalist Will Mader gives us an inspired look at all this Byzantine beauty.

We hope this week’s show, “Frontiers of Faith,” gives you an appreciation for some of the history and culture behind Russian Orthodox Christmas in Alaska.

One of the traditions you’ll learn about is “starring,” a practice which takes place in communities across the state. Over the course of seven days, a twirling star leads a procession of singers to homes, which are filled with the sound of carols – some in Native languages, others in Ukrainian and Russian.

Afterwards, people feast and the host gives everyone gifts – usually small, useful things, like tea towels and socks. So when you’re in Fred Meyer or Walmart, and you see an Alaska Native with a cart piled with socks, towels or gloves, they could be preparing to host a group of singers in their home.

Over the years, as more Rural Alaskans have moved to Anchorage, the “starring” tradition has become a bigger part of the city’s celebration. Father Oleska invited us to his home to get a taste of what’s known in villages as “Slaaviq” or “Slavi”  — probably a variant of the Russian word, “slava,” which means “glory.”

The St. Alexis Chapel choir sang for us in a wide repertoire of languages. They come from communities across the state, including the Aleutian Chain and Western Alaska.

As part of this week’s program, our producer Gina Romero put together a photo gallery with contributions from our viewers.

We’re still adding to our web gallery, so if you want your pictures included, post them on our new Facebook page, “Frontiers with Rhonda McBride,” or you can email them to Gina at gromero@ktva.com .

We want to thank two of our viewers — Laura Hilts of Seldovia and Richard Russell of Palmer — for sending questions for this week’s guest, Father Oleska.

Our guest next week is Andrew Jensen, editor of the Alaska Journal of Commerce. We’ll be talking about the Kenai Fish Wars, the ongoing battle between the setnetters and sports fishers, in light of a recent State Supreme Court decision.  If you have questions you’d like me to ask, please message me on Facebook.

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