Russian Orthodox Christmas in Alaska: A multicultural, multilingual celebration
Although most Alaskans celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, members of the Russian Orthodox Church started their weeklong celebration on Jan. 7 — the date of Christ’s birth, according to the Julian calendar.
In many Alaska communities, the festivities are known as “Slaaviq”
or “Slavi” – slang for the Russian word for glory, “slava.”
The traditions vary from village to village. But over the years, many Alaska Native Russian Orthodox worshippers have moved to Anchorage and brought their customs with them, which gives urban Alaskans a wide variety to sample.
Father Michael Oleska has served in communities from Kodiak Island to Bristol Bay and to the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta — and said it’s exciting to see so many traditions celebrated in one place.
He invited KTVA to his house to hear Russian Christmas hymns sung by members of the St. Alexis chapel in East Anchorage. Its members come from all across Alaska – from St. George in the Aleutians, to Ouzinkie on Spruce Island near Kodiak — to Tyonek, in Cook Inlet.
The singers moved comfortably between Russian and English — as well as Yup’ik, a Native language spoken in Southwest Alaska – and Unangan, an Aleut language from the Aleutian chain.
“Where else in the world would you have anything like this, except Alaska,” Father Oleksa said.
There’s also the Alaskan tradition of “starring,” in which a star is twirled as the choir sings.
The star takes its inspiration from the one three wise men followed to Bethlehem. Today, carolers follow the star, as it travels house-to-house, lighting up the cold and darkness of winter, bringing people together to celebrate.
The practice of “starring” is believed to have come from the Carpathian Mountains in the Ukraine. No one knows who brought the tradition to Alaska, or exactly where it started or how it spread.
It’s one of the many mysteries surrounding Russian Orthodox Christmas celebrations in Alaska, which Father Oleksa said have very little to do with Russia.
A very large star, which is often seen in Anchorage, is something of a mystery too.
It came from one of the lost Aleut villages on the Aleutian chain, which was evacuated in World War II and never resettled. It wound up stashed away in an attic in Nikolski, on the southwest end of Umnak Island, west of Unalaska, where it was eventually moved.
Terenty Dushkin said his family eventually took it to Anchorage.
The points of the star are made of glass panels, adorned with hand-painted Alaska wildflowers. Father Oleksa blessed it with holy water — a ritual which takes place after a star has been refurbished.
Dushkin touched up the painted flowers and manger scene at the center of the star, added fresh silk flowers and bells that jingle when it spins.
It weighs about 30 pounds.
“It’s love,” Dushkin said. “Everything about it is love. All the work that goes into it, everything that comes out of it from people who see it and sing with it.”
This Sunday’s Frontiers program, “Frontiers of Faith,” explores Russian Orthodox Church’s Christmas in Alaska, a unique blend of European and Alaska Native traditions. Father Michael Oleksa is our guest on the show, which airs at 4:30 and 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 10.
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