January brings Christmas for some Alaskans

Aunt Phil's Trunk

While many Alaskans celebrated Christmas on December 25, others from the Pribilof Islands to Nikiski to Sitka observe Christmas in January. That's because they observe the Russian Orthodox Church calendar.

The Russian Orthodox Church still uses the Julian calendar, where each day occurs 13 days after the corresponding day on the modern Gregorian calendar. So January 7 is their day of rejoicing the birth of Christ.

The Alaska Native people's relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church dates back to the mid-1700s when Russian fur traders first arrived. By the mid-1800s, the Russians had explored most of the southwestern and southern coasts, as well as parts of the Interior.

These men were from a culture that believed in Christianity and they shared their beliefs with the Natives as they traveled the vast land. It wasn't long before Russian priests started coming to Alaska.

The first Russian Orthodox missionaries arrived in 1794, and they built their first church in Kodiak. Journals from the time show how difficult life was for the priests. They not only battled bitter cold weather and deep snow as they traveled via dog teams to settlements, they also often sacrificed their salaries to meet the expenses of their parishes. The lack of essential supplies led some to sell candles and books to make ends meet.

Many of these priests believed in learning the language and culture of Alaska's people so they could teach in the Natives' dialects. They translated Christian texts, created dictionaries and wrote prayer books in Native languages.

Father Ioann Veniaminov, one of the greatest proponents of multilingualism, created an alphabet for the Aleut language. With the help of Aleut chief Ivan Pan'kov, he wrote and published an Aleut catechism in 1834 – the first book ever published in an Alaska Native language.

The Russian Americans also shared their customs for celebrating Christmas, which is more of a religious festival in Orthodox communities. It's traditional to light candles in honor of Jesus, as light of the world. Then people walk in procession to a sea, lake or river where a priest will bless the water as part of an outdoor ceremony. Some people will take the blessed water back to their homes.

While sharing these customs, the Russians saw an opportunity to combine their religious ceremonies with the long-held Alaska Native tradition of feasting at this time of year. For millennia, Yup'ik people in Southwest Alaska invited neighboring villages to feasts as a way to thank the animals that had allowed themselves to be hunted, killed, skinned and eaten during the past year. They also honored the memories of their relatives who had passed away during the previous 12 months.

Today villagers celebrate for an entire week with church services, fireworks and special foods. Part of their weeklong celebration includes the Ukrainian custom of carrying a large pinwheel-shaped "star" and they go "starring," which also is called slaviq. People make huge "stars of Bethlehem" out of wood, crepe paper and tassels and then twirl these stars as they travel from home to home and village to village.

They sing songs outside of a house and then are invited inside to sing carols – sometimes in English, Russian, Slavonic, Yup'ik, Alutiiq, Dena'ina and other Native languages. The group then feasts on food the family has prepared and receives gifts in memory of those who have died. Then they all go off to another house to repeat the ritual until late into the night, just as their ancestors did before the Christian faith arrived in Alaska.

This column features stories from late Alaska historian Phyllis Downing Carlson and her niece, Laurel Downing Bill. Many of these stories fill the pages of "Aunt Phil's Trunk," a five-book Alaska history series that won the 2016 Literary Classics International award for Best Nonfiction Series worldwide. Books are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at http://www.auntphilstrunk.com and Amazon.com in both print and eBooks.