January 6, 2017 is Christmas Eve in Orthodox Christian parishes across Alaska. Orthodox faithful will go from house to house on foot, in cars or on snow machines, singing carols and sharing food behind a shiny, spinning pinwheel which represents the Star of Bethlehem.
Although most Orthodox Christmas traditions were brought intentionally to Alaska by the Russians during the colonial era, the spinning star was not one of them.
The Reverend Michael Oleksa is the parish priest in Sitka, and a leading historian of Orthodox Christianity in the state. He says why Alaskan Orthodox follow a spinning star remains a mystery.
OLEKSA: “Starring began in what at the time was the Austro-Hungarian Empire — not Russia at all — where the Orthodox Church was forbidden. Catholicism was allowed, but not Orthodoxy. So the peasants in those mountains developed a series of folk customs, including following a star — a pinwheel-shaped device — usually just mounted on a stationary pole or stick and carried from house to house. And like the Magi following the star to Bethlehem, the carolers followed the star. In one county — just one that I know of — in the region around the western Ukraine, the city of Ternopil, they spin the stars. So somehow that tradition — not just the singing and following the star — but the spinning of the star lept from western Ukraine to Alaska, 100-150 years ago. We don’t know how they did that. Because in between the Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine and northern Slovakia and eastern Romania — between there and here — no one would have heard anything about starring. It would be unknown in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Maybe Kiev, because it’s the capital of Ukraine, and the Ukraine has adopted it as a national custom. But 12 time zones away and nothing in between, how did starring come to Alaska? Who brought it here? And the answer to that is we have no idea.”