Frontiers 132: Following the star in Port Graham
If you love the Christmas season, Rural Alaska is the place to be. Often, there are two waves of festivities – the first on Dec. 25 - and the second on Jan. 7, the day Russian Orthodox Church celebrates, based on the Julian calendar.
This week we take you to Port Graham, a tiny community of 160 people on the tip of the Kenai Peninsula near Homer – where traditions are a mix of Russian and Alaska Native cultures.
One of the oldest is called “starring,” a procession in which singers follow a spinning star from house to house – in memory of the three wise men who used a star to guide them to Bethlehem.
Here are some of the highlights from this week’s show:
- Holiday Feasting: A look at how Lydia McMullen prepares for the star’s visit to her home. From moose to dried halibut to homemade rolls, she lays out quite a spread for the singers.
- Inside the Russian Orthodox Church: Many Christmas carols are sung in Slavonic, a liturgical language introduced to the region when the first Russian settlers arrived. The starring tradition, which has its roots in Ukraine, has taken on a life of its own in Rural Alaska.
- Conversation with a Russian Orthodox Priest: Father Daniel Andrejuk, the outgoing rector of St. Tikhon in Anchorage, reflects on his time in Alaska. Father Daniel is originally from Russia – where he returns this month, to represent the Orthodox Church of America in Moscow.
- A Taste of Maskalataaq: After the starring is over, it’s time for the Maskalataaq, or “Masking.” Out come the guitars, drums and dancers – who wear outlandish masks and costumes. The Maskalataaq marks the transition to the New Year, which is celebrated on Jan. 14.
Depending on the community, the Russian Orthodox Christmas celebration in Alaska goes by a variety of names: Slavvy, Slaviq, Slawik. Church historians believe the word is derived from the Russian word “slava,” which means “glory.”
Whatever you call it, it all adds up to a time of generosity, where cherished subsistence foods are widely shared.
This was my first visit to Port Graham. The scenery is sublime, but so are the people. I was struck by their kindness and warmth — and the joy they took in celebrating as a community.
Father James Gust, who serves Port Graham and the neighboring village of Nanwalek, says the starring – along with the hugs and happiness it brings – helps to spread love to every house in the community.