Merry Christmas in Central Yup’ik
By the first week of January, most Americans are taking down their Christmas decorations, but for Alaska’s thousands of Orthodox Christians, who, in keeping with the Julian calendar, celebrate Orthodox Christmas on January 7, the holiday season is just getting started.
The Orthodox Church in America lists over 90 active Orthodox parishes in Alaska. Most are along the coast from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta southward through southeast Alaska. They are a legacy of early Russian Orthodox influence, with Alaska’s first Russian Orthodox mission established in 1794 at Kodiak.
Today, Orthodox Christmas celebrations include the Ukrainian practice of “starring,” where groups travel among homes and villages to sing folk and religious songs while spinning a crafted star that represents the story of the Three Wise Men. These and other practices are often mixed with Alaska Native foods and traditions. On Saint Paul Island, for instance, Slavonic songs are also sung in Unangam Tunuu, the region’s Indigenous language. And public schools in villages around Prince William Sound, Bethel, and other locations hold their winter breaks into January to include the Orthodox Christmas.
Travelers to south-coastal Alaska can find Orthodox churches in Sitka, Kodiak, Anchorage, and many other communities. Over 20 of the churches are national historic landmarks.