Last week’s Russian Christmas in Unalaska looked a little different from elsewhere in the state. Over the years, the town evolved from a Native village into an industrial hub. Now, it has miles of roads and thousands of residents from countless different faiths. Therefore, the little congregation of the oldest Russian Orthodox Church on the continent has had to evolve, too. KUCB’s Annie Ropeik has more on how their Slaaviq became a community celebration. In Unalaska’s historic downtown, Christmastime means almost every building is strung with lights… all but the Orthodox Church, which sits at the back of the neighbourhood. Its green onion domes date back 200 years, standing out in a skyline of cargo cranes and seafood plants. Outside the church, you wouldn’t know it’s Christmas… until early January, when a rare sound rings out across the island. In the sanctuary, about 15 worshippers sing a set of Russian and English carols. They’re grouped around a pair of spinning wooden stars, each a few feet across and strung with lights, bells, and tinsel. This starring ceremony will repeat dozens of times in the next few nights, in kitchens and living rooms across town.
However, the biggest, newest, part of the holiday came earlier in the day. At least 100 people packed into the local senior centre for a community Slaaviq potluck. The meal only dates back about 15 years, designed to give the elders a starring in the daytime. Fr Evon Bereskin, the Orthodox priest for Unalaska and several nearby villages, said, “The meaning of the celebration of the Nativity of Christ, the starring, is that we’re going out to proclaim the birth of Christ. The stars that we’re spinning are the stars which the wise men followed. So, we’re spinning and singing and following the star, which leads us to Christ”. From here, Fr Evon said that they’d spend three days starring in people’s homes. These days, that can include long-time Unalaskans who aren’t actually part of the congregation. However, the list for the second night is all churchgoers. The group that will bring the star to them is bigger than the one at the church. They meet at Fr Evon’s apartment for coffee and brownies, then, try to figure out who’s next… and spread the word via text message. Lifelong Unalaskan Sharon Svarny Livingston is one of the starring group. She said that this part has changed a lot since she was little, when the town looked more like the villages that celebrate Slaaviq in the rest of Alaska. She told us, “In all those other places, you walk with the star all over the whole town, you know? So, that creates a different feeling. Here you gotta drive. If you’re working and you don’t get off until late, you’ve gotta try to find the star, which can be really difficult sometimes. It’s easier now with cell phones”.
The congregation’s also had to condense some over the years. With many parents now raising their kids to celebrate two Christmases… American and Russian… Livingston says that they’ve had to work harder to pass on the traditions, saying, “We kind of went through a period where we really had to teach the young kids the songs and stuff. We all started to go in one group and we just kind of stayed that way. That’s what’s really changed”. The single star they’re using now is thought to be their oldest… made about a century ago in the Native village of Kashega, abandoned during World War II. Tonight, that star… as big as a small child… gets a ride in one of the SUVs caravanning up the road to the first houses on the list. Then, it crowds into Vicki Williams’ living room with its entourage of carollers singing in Russian. The starring always ends the same way… with a blessing of long life. The choir sang, “Many years to all, many years to all, to the people in this house. (In Russian and English) Merry Christmas, merry Christmas!” Williams replied, “Thank you!” Williams wears a big smile, standing in the middle of the crowd and thanking all her friends for coming as they file out, saying, “I feel like I’m having my house blessed when they come here, you know, with the cross and the star and stuff”. She bid a “see you later” to a pair of young fishermen on their way out the door. Around her, the room emptied out as quickly as it filled. The starring group is heading back to their cars. They have lots more houses to get to before the night is over.
16 January 2015
KUCB (Unalaska AK USA)
AK Alaska Public Media