Bethel Residents Celebrate Slaaviq, Yup’ik Style

by Charles Enoch on January 8, 2015

An altar boy spins a star at Father Elia's apartment. Photo by Trim Nick

An altar boy spins a star at Father Elia’s apartment. Photo by Trim Nick

People in Southwestern Alaska have been celebrating Slaaviq for as long as anyone can remember. The 150-year-old tradition incorporating Yup’ik Alaska Native rituals is unique to the region.
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More than 50 people gather at the Saint Sophia Orthodox Church in Bethel to kick off Orthodox Christmas by following a spinning star from house to house. The wooden star decorated with tinsel represents the star of Bethlehem that led the wise men to the baby Jesus.

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Two alter boys stand at the front of the red-carpeted sanctuary spinning their stars surrounded by gold painted crucifixes and religious icons depicting Mary and other saints. The room is brightly lit by ornate chandeliers and candles. Congregants recite scriptures and sing hymns in the English, Russian and Yup’ik languages.

From the church, they’ll crowd into homes to hold feasts, pass out gifts and move onto other houses. Archpriest, Father Michael Oleksa leads the liturgy. He says that not all aspects of the celebration come from Russian colonization in Alaska, including the tradition of following the star.

“Russians don’t do it, so it’s kind of funny when people call it ‘Russian Christmas’ because Russians wouldn’t know what were talking about. It’s Western Ukraine, and Slovakia, and Romania where this custom came from. How it came from way over the other side of the world to the Yukon Delta or to Alaska we have yet to figure out. It’s still a mystery how this custom of ‘starring’ came from the middle of Europe, skipping over all of Russia and wound up here in Alaska. But somebody must have brought the custom or we wouldn’t have it,” said Oleksa.

Orthodoxy is the second most accepted faith in the world with over 200 million followers, second only to Catholicism. There are an estimated 25,000 Orthodox Christians in Alaska, making it one of the most accepted faiths by Alaskan Natives. The first Orthodox missionaries landed in the Southern Alaskan island of Kodiak in the 1700s. They reached Southwestern Alaska around a 150 years ago.

Oleksa says another feature of Slaaviq [sla-vick] unique to the area is the feasting that comes with the ‘starring.’ Before Christianity was introduced to the region there was a Yup’ik tradition of holding a feast around the same time of year that Orthodox Christmas takes place, to honor and thank the animals caught, and also to remember people that died in the previous year.

“So this part of the ‘Slaaviq’ or Christmas celebration is exclusively Yup’ik. It’s not something they would do anyplace else in the world to have the kind of feasting and gift giving that we have here in the Delta,” said Oleksa.

Anchorage-based Father Oleksa has worked in Alaska for 45 years. He is the author of the book ‘Orthodox Alaska’ that explains the history of the Church in the state.

The starring group makes it’s first stop at Father Elia Larson’s house where they crowd into a small, warm apartment to sing more songs and to eat local foods like moose soup, dry fish and akutaq, a mixture of berries, fat and sugar, also known as Eskimo ice cream. People pass out small gifts of candy, socks, pens and other goodies.

Bethel resident Trim Nick has been celebrating the tradition for as long as he can remember.

“The Slaaviq that I remembered from my childhood was a marathon. Long days and nights, long nights of going from house to house. Sometimes we’d go from one day to the next without sleep because there are so many houses to visit. I don’t know how we did it as children but we followed the star in anticipation of candy, lots of candy,” said Nick.

Nick says he now partakes in the tradition for the fellowship.

Slaaviq is the equivalent of Christmas for those who use the Julian Calendar, the predecessor to the more modern Gregorian Calendar.

The celebration in Bethel goes on for days, it is scheduled to run until Sunday, the 11th.

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