During Orthodox Christmas, old traditions stay strong

January 7th is Orthodox Christmas, which is celebrated in many communities across Alaska. And the celebration is in full swing in the Alaska Native village of Nanwalek on the Southern Kenai Peninsula.

Photo: Daysha Eaton/KBBI
Photo: Daysha Eaton/KBBI

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People in Nanwalek spent Christmas Eve singing in celebration of Orthodox Christmas at the Saint Sergius and Herman church in Nanwalek. In the community of about 300 people of Alutiiq and Sugpiaq descent, they sing in Slavonic, a liturgical language used by the Orthodox Church in Russia and Eastern Europe. It’s a remnant of the fur trade era and Russian colonialism.

On Wednesday the holiday kicked off around the state with Christmas Eve services followed by starring. Nanwalek resident Sperry Ash says the practice represents the journey of the three wise men.

“Each region in Alaska that practices this style of caroling, what we call Slavic, they all have variations. But generally they follow a star, a wooden frame that’s decorated with the icon of nativity in the center and that star guides the carolers house to house,” he explains.

Food and treats are offered to the visitors at each house.

“Starring is really an enjoyable event – to be able to go house-to-house and see each family and greet them. That fellowship is really special at this time of year,” he adds.

Photo: Daysha Eaton/KBBI.
Photo: Daysha Eaton/KBBI.

Nanwalek used to be known as English Bay. The village was originally the site of a Russian trading post called Alexandrovski during the fur trade of the 1700s. Locals changed the community name back to the original Native name of Nanwalek, meaning “place by a lagoon.” Nanwalek is situated along Cook Inlet at the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula. Starring starts at the chief’s house. Subdeacon Ephim Moonin says a prayer.

Then the singing starts in front of an icon on a shelf beside the family Christmas tree.

Chief John Kvasnikoff says the tradition and the story of the Nativity are important to preserve in the face of outside influences.

“We got a lot of influences you know, internet and all this new technology. Kids are seeing, you know they see outside. But people can see in here too. And I’m glad they’re still holding onto it. It makes you a better person. It makes you want to help people who need help,” Kvasnikoff says.

Next they’ll star at the houses of newborn babies and elders, like Sally Ash, Sperry’s mother. She’s is the Sugt’stun language teacher in Nanwalek and she says she’s teaching all her grandchildren the language. Ash say she enjoys the Slavonic hymns, but says, in the future, she’d like to see some songs sung in Sugt’stun too.

“The kids, if they don’t know who they are, us being Sugpiaq, and if they don’t know their culture and their religion, they just get lost – just be a lost soul and then they follow what’s on TV. And so I think it’s really important that they know not only Christmas but also Pascha and other major feasts we celebrate throughout the year. It’s very important, yah,” she says.

Pascha is Easter. Some holiday tables will have traditional octopus and chiton, or as the locals call them bidarkis — or in Sugt’stun, urritaq — gathered from the local reef, along with dry fish and seal oil, says Ash.

Food is a big part of the holidays in Nanwalek and the table is a mix of Russian, Sugpiaq and Western influences. She has a pot of turkey soup on the stove she says because the store had to give away defrosting turkeys due to a power outage last week. And having the power out has set everyone behind on their holiday preparations. With the power back on people are out to get what they need… Like Adele Kvasnikoff, the chief’s niece.

“We have pilot crackers. So we’re going to prepare a traditional pilot cracker with salmon eggs and cream cheese. And my husband loves to use the Nally’s chili and we mix it with fresh cheddar cheese and we melt it together and we get tortilla chips and use it as a dip. And I grabbed a couple of small candies for stocking stuffers for my kids tomorrow,” she says.

Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7, according to the Julian calendar. Starring will continue for the next several days. The holiday season runs through the Orthodox New Year on January 14.

The holiday is celebrated in Anchorage, in the Y-K Delta , in Southeast and Kodiak and along the Aleutian chain … as well as on the Southern  Kenai Peninsula where Nanwalek is.160107 Nan Ortho 1 - Copy

Daysha Eaton is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network.

Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage.

Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email.

Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.

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