Kenai celebrates Russian Orthodox Christmas with singing and stars

starring carolers in Kenai
Father Thomas Andrew (left) leads a group of carolers at the Kenaitze Tribe’s Tyotkas Elder Center. (Riley Board/KDLL)

At the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s elder center Tuesday, in view of Kenai’s historic Russian Orthodox church, a routine lunch was punctuated by choral singing, a performance and a visit from a local Russian Orthodox priest.

The ceremony, known as “starring,” is practiced by communities around Alaska in celebration of Russian Orthodox Christmas, on Jan. 7. Traditionally, groups of singers travel from home to home, spinning large, pin-wheel-like shimmering stars and performing religious and folk songs.

“It’s caroling in nature,” said Father Thomas Andrew, a former priest of the Holy Assumption Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai.

He said the tradition is actually Ukrainian in origin, possibly beginning with a homesick priest who introduced it to Alaskan villages.

“It was brought over by somebody from Ukraine,” So when they first came, they brought Ukranians’ music, in Ukrainian, and a lot of villages west of the mountains over here still sing praises and caroling in Slavonic.”

Andrew said when he moved to Kenai from Marshall, Alaska, near Bethel, in 2003, he learned there weren’t any local caroling-based ceremonies in practice. He revived the starring tradition by translating the Ukrainian songs from his own life into English.

Andrew said the ceremony performed Tuesday is based on the Biblical story of the three wise men. The spinning star represents the star they used to follow to Christ. This year, Andrew said he made a special Ukrainian-style star, which is smaller and features a nativity scene at the center.

Around the time of Russian Orthodox Christmas, Andrew travels around town to different locations where Orthodox Christians are present, performing the ceremony. He said he only performs where he’s been invited.

“Even in the Ukrainian tradition, they have to be invited,” he said. “Even individually, if we wanted to invite Christ into our lives, we have to invite him personally.”

Andrew said to him, the Orthodox Church’s ethos has always been about the saving power of free will.

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