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Reflections of Russian Orthodox Christmas celebrations on St. Paul Island

Russian Orthodox Christmas on St. Paul Island.JPG
Russian Orthodox Christmas is celebrated across Alaska, but when it comes to the festivities there are many variations on a theme, with traditions that are often unique to the region. Port Graham, for example, shared a priest with its neighboring village, Nanwalek in January, 2019. Each community scheduled their church services so the priest could spend time in each community (Photo of Port Graham service by Rhonda McBride).

I feel lucky. Lucky that while everyone has one Christmas, I have two. I am Russian Orthodox from St. Paul Island, and I celebrate both holidays.

The 25th of December is more traditional for my family. Santa, the colors red and green. A Christmas Story playing 24 hours on TBS. I love this holiday. But there is something so meaningful and special about January 7th.

While we still have our decorations and Christmas tree up, Russian Christmas to me is more of a religious experience. Early in the morning we go to church, where the choir sings beautiful, ethereal songs in both Slavonic and Unangam Tunuu, the language of the people of the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands.

Everyone is dressed in their Sunday best, and near the altar on the floor, there are usually two festively crafted cardboard stars, draped with a garland, with Russian orthodox icons placed throughout. Sometimes they have working lights.

The stars are designed to spin, so when singing the hymns, someone, usually a man spins the star to the songs. The priest often yells “Xristuusax Agakux!” and “Kristos Rozhdestvo”, which means, “Christ is born” in Unangam Tunuu and “Merry Christmas” in Slavonic. Between January 7th and January 10th, Starring, or “Slaavi” begins. The priest, along with the choir and whoever else wants to join in, go from house to house singing Russian Orthodox Christmas songs while spinning the beautiful cardboard star.

I had participated in Starring several times in my life. But to me it’s an entirely different experience having the Starrers come to your home. As a child growing up, my mom always had hot beverages, freshly made cookies, and fruit cake on the counter waiting for everyone -- which was what everyone traditionally does.

The priest and singers come in and go to your living room, and whoever is spinning the star stands beneath your icons that are usually in the corner of the room and faces the singers.

For some reason, I feel like my New Year starts the day the starrers come to my house. The songs that are sung, and the message they bring, give me hope. A majority of the songs are sung in either Unangan or Slavonic, but there are some English versions that say things like, “God grant you many years, God bring you peace and health for many, many years.”

This is my first Christmas season away from home since I moved to Anchorage. And my heart is homesick for what once was. But I am forever thankful for these traditions, and I intend to pass them on to my children, no matter where we are.