Courtesy of MIKE ROSTAD

Starring at the home of Rosabel Baldwin.

While most people have taken down their Christmas trees and stored the decorations, there are homes throughout Alaska where Christmas caroling continues. The custom, known as starring, is practiced by Orthodox faithful in many parishes in the state. Some of these parishes follow the ancient Julian calendar in celebrating holidays. According to that calendar, Dec. 25, the date of Christmas (the Nativity of Jesus Christ), falls on Jan. 7 of the widely-used Gregorian calendar.

The tradition of starring was apparently introduced to Alaska communities by missionaries from the Ukraine. In the custom, a tinsel-wrapped replica of the star of Bethlehem is taken to the icon corner in homes and institutions and twirled as the people sing Christmas hymns, troparions and carols, proclaiming “Christ is born! Glorify Him!” or the Slavonic greeting, “Christos Rhazdaetsya! Slavite Eho!” 

During this time of year, I’m reminded of three events that crystallized the significance of starring and the Nativity it celebrates.

In 1992 I worked at St. Herman’s Seminary as a teacher, cook and dorm “dad” to the male students in the singles dormitory.  I recall one snowy night when I took banya with the students. On this particular night, one of the students, whose name was Gus, was preparing to travel to Bristol Bay to attend the funeral of his cousin, who had been killed in a snowmobile accident. His fellow students tried to comfort Gus by singing the starring hymns, interspersing those songs with the narrative of the Christmas story. 

Two years later, when dean of students, Father Peter Kreta, was struggling with cancer, the star was taken to the home of parish priest, Father John Zabinko, and his wife, Maggie. 

Father Peter was weak, but he participated in the starring. His inner enthusiasm was still strong and bright. Father Peter was on the telephone, listening with full attention, his face beaming with a smile. On the other end of the line his beloved parishioners in Ouzinkie sang the familiar troparions and hymns, wished him a blessed Nativity and proclaimed, “Christ is born!” a greeting that meant so much to him.

They were giving him inspiration and strength for the difficult journey ahead.

Five years later I traveled to the village of Kswethluk on the Kuskokwim River, a few days before Nativity, for the funeral of my former student, Irene Fisher Suskuk, and her children, who had perished in a fire on St. Paul Island. It was an emotional trip highlighted by grief and a great sense of loss. Timothy, Irene’s brother, reminded us that Nativity was soon upon us. Grieving hearts would be consoled by the joyous announcement that Christ is born! Glorify Him! Soon the homes in Kwethluk would be graced by the star and the singing of Christmas songs. 

Joe Evon, a student at St. Herman’s Seminary who lives in Napaskiak, a village near Kwethluk, said that starring is “very uplifting. It goes directly to your soul.”

Each Alaska community has its own style of decorating the star and follows different protocols in bringing the star from home to home.

“We all have our unique flavor to it,” said Father Vasily Fisher, dean of St. Herman’s Seminary, who grew up in Kwethluk. “Even though we sing the same hymns (as other Orthodox communities,) we do it somewhat differently.”

So what is so special about the tradition of starring?

In Timothy Fisher’s words, “You blend in a feast along with the celebration of the Nativity. You have a star that leads carolers, just like the three Wisemen followed the star to where Christ was born. Every time we follow the star, we go into the house. Christ is there, so the star settles there. When we’re done singing, there’s still that other tradition of gift-giving. After that, they feed people.

“When a person gives a feast, they try to give it their best. Some houses will have roast turkey, roast swan, moose meat, fried or boiled fish. We always have a really big table to serve at least 20 people. After the first people are served, they stand up and let the other people eat.

“The star doesn’t go out unless there’s nothing more to serve. Nobody goes out hungry or empty-handed.”

Timothy’s brother, Father Vasilly, recalled that many of the people in his village didn’t hold down ful-ltime jobs. They lived a subsistence lifestyle. But they were still willing to give everything that they had.

One villager in particular came to mind. This person never had enough money to heat his house, Vasilly said. “When the people brought the star to his home the sides of the wall were icy. Most of the house was frosted over. He’d be in a down coat. He’d almost have nothing to eat. But every year he’d scrape up something to give to people as gifts.” 

This is the spirit of the season, Vasilly said. “It’s not the person who gives the most (that is ultimately important,) but the person who gives the most from within.”

In places such as Kwethluk, starring continues for  several days. Once all the homes are visited in one village,  the carolers travel by snow machine to neighboring communities.

Starring may not last as long on Kodiak Island, but nevertheless, it’s a tradition that is taken very seriously. The novelty of this tradition never seems to wear off each year as the faithful go from house to house and listen to the Nativity songs sung in Slavonic, Alutiiq and English. 

As Joe Evon aptly said, starring “goes directly to the soul.”




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