I was grocery shopping at the A.C.—Alaska Commerical—store in Bethel a few days after Christmas when I turned a corner to see a woman who worked for my husband filling a shopping basket with large bags of hard candy. I greeted her and asked what she planned to do with all that sweetness, and she smiled broadly, telling me excitedly, “I’m going home for Russian!”
I must have looked confused because she quickly explained, “I’m going home to my village for Russian Orthodox Christmas.”
I knew that orthodox Christians celebrated Christmas about two weeks later than other sects, but that was pretty much all I knew about the event—thanks to a difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars—so I asked her to tell me what happened during a “Russian” or “Slavic” celebration. And that’s when I got my first introduction to starring.
When Russian fur traders settled in Alaska in the 1700s, they brought their religion and cultural traditions with them. One of those traditions was starring—selaviq in Yupik, or slavit in Russian—in which the faithful follow a brightly decorated, spinning star with an icon of the Nativity at its center, proclaiming “Christ is born” and singing traditional hymns and carols. Starring has become a Christmas tradition in many Western Alaska villages, where Russian orthodox settlers and missionaries converted the Native locals generations ago.
The star is intended to represent the Star of Bethlehem, followed by the three wise men who visited Jesus’ after his birth. As the wise men brought the good news of the birth of the Christ child, Orthodox believers spread the good news to homes in their villages. Starring is also a chance for the whole community to celebrate and gather together for fun during the darkest time of the year.
Each community celebrates starring a little bit differently. Some communities start at the church, singing Nativity carols and holding a worship service during which the star is blessed. Then they visit the homes of the priest and deacons and other church leaders, who give a brief sermon In many villages, the procession goes to every house, sometimes over the course of several nights or even a week, following an agreed-upon schedule. Some believe that as the star enters the house, the spirit of Christ enters with it and blesses them.
Led by the church choir, the starring group sings traditional songs in Russian or Slavonic, English and the local Native language, then has a brief prayer. After each member of the procession bows in front of the icon and the star is hung up, the homeowners host the processioners to a meal or serve drinks and snacks. Some give out small gifts or throw or hand out candy for the children (that’s what the candy my friend in Bethel was buying was intended for). The revelers stay at each house an hour or two, until everyone has eaten and relaxed and laughed together, before moving on. And after the last house is visited, some processions moves on to the village cemetery to sing and spin the star to the departed. In other villages, graves are lit with candles or Christmas lights throughout the days-long starring festival.
When the Star is moving to between houses, a child often rings a small hand bell to lead the way, and the procession also carries a candle and an icon of the Nativity of Christ.
Stars vary between villages, as well. Most are made of wood, with eight spokes coming out of a central wheel, wrapped in brightly colored ribbon to give a colorful blurred effect when spun from behind by the bearer. Some wrap their stars with battery-powered lights (or electric lights that are plugged in at each house) or cover the spokes in tin foil or string them with tinsel to increase the sparkle. Some stars are about the size of a car tire, while others are huge and require several men to carry them. In some villages the singers also carry a spinning cross along with the star.
The star is usually spun counter clockwise during singing, but some villages end the singing in each house by spinning the star in the other direction to signify the end of the old year and the beginning of a new one.
The event is great fun for the children, who are allowed to stay up past their bedtimes while the star is in the house or while they are participating in starring at others’ houses. In some villages, the school is closed for the week so the children can catch up on missed sleep during the day. And even as adults, many look forward to starring as a time of celebration, community and happiness, as families gather together. Many adult Alaska Natives who do not travel home to their villages for Thanksgiving or Western Christmas will make a point of going home during the first week of January so they don’t miss starring. And people often travel between neighboring villages to share in the starring festival with friends or relatives, expecting to hosts guests in their own homes, as well.
Non-orthodox guests and community members are welcomed to participate in starring, even hosting the star in their homes if they wish, and the whole festival has an air of a block party as well as a religious celebration. My friend insisted my husband and I were welcome to travel to her village and partake in the feasting and fun. We never did make it to a village for starring, but I wish we had done so before we left Bethel. These days, I eagerly watch for news reports about the festival on the local news in early January. It looks like a lot of fun, and a great way to make the longest winter nights feel shorter.
—Rebecca Luczycki is senior editor of Alaska magazine.