Last week’s Russian Christmas in Unalaska looked a little different than elsewhere in the state. Over the years, the town has evolved from a Native village into an industrial hub. Now, it has miles of roads and thousands of residents from countless different faiths.
So 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 has become 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 neighborhood. 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 are singing 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.
But the biggest, newest part of the holiday came earlier in the day. At least 100 people packed into the local senior center for a community Slaaviq potluck. The meal only dates back about 15 years, designed to give the elders a starring in the daytime.
“The meaning of the celebration of the nativity of Christ, the starring, is that we’re going out to proclaim the birth of Christ,” says Father Evon Bereskin, the Orthodox priest for Unalaska and several nearby villages.
“The stars that we’re spinning are the stars which the wise men followed,” he says. “So we’re spinning and singing and following the star, which leads us to Christ.”
From here, Bereskin says they’ll spend three days starring in people’s homes. These days, that can include longtime Unalaskans who aren’t actually part of the congregation.
But the list for the second night is all church-goers. The group that will bring the star to them is bigger than the one at the church. They meet at Father Bereskin’s apartment for coffee and brownies, then try to figure out who is next – and spread the word via text message.
Vince Tutiakoff, choir leader: Okay, listen up. We’re gonna go to Monty’s, Shirley’s, Vicki’s, Jenny’s…
Lifelong Unalaskan Sharon Svarny Livingston is one of the starring group. She says 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.
“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’ve gotta drive,” Svarny Livingston says. “And 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,” she adds, laughing.
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 – Svarny Livingston says they’ve had to work harder to pass on the traditions.
“We kind of went through a period where we really had to teach the young kids the songs and stuff,” she says. “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, which was 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 carolers singing in Russian.
The starring always ends the same way: with a blessing of long life.
Choir (singing): Many years to all, many years to all, to the people in this house. (In Russian and English) Merry Christmas, merry Christmas!
Williams: Thank you!
Vicki Williams wears a big smile, standing in the middle of the crowd and thanking all her friends for coming as they file out.
“I feel like I’m having my house blessed when they come here, you know, with the cross and the star and stuff,” she says, as she bids a “see you later” to a pair of young fishermen on their way out the door.
Around her, the room has emptied out as quickly as it filled. The starring group is heading back to their cars. They’ve got lots more houses to get to before the night is over.