Orthodox Christmas tradition burns brightly in Alaska – 1/10/15

Some of the most remarkable experiences I’ve had writing about religion in Alaska have been in connection with the Orthodox Christian faith. Last summer I addressed three flavors of Orthodox Christianity in Alaska in this column. In preparing for that column, I met many Orthodox Christians who are truly blessed by their beliefs. But I had never attended a Russian Orthodox Christmas service. Jan. 7, the traditional Russian Orthodox Christmas, I attended a wonderful service at Anchorage’s St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Beginning as Vespers, but ending with “Christ is born,” Bishop David Mahaffey continued by blessing elaborate stars congregants brought for the “starring” after the service. Starring — i.e., spinning them — proceeded to liturgical music and a selection of Christmas carols. The choir for this service was small in number but beautiful in tone. The church, packed with believers celebrating Christmas, will continue starring for days by going to the homes of congregants, wishing them merry Christmas and singing carols. That service was a wonderful departure from what I typically experience in many local churches. It really put Christ back in Christmas!

A well-known local Orthodox priest, the Very Rev. Michael Oleksa, extensively shared his thoughts with me about Russian Orthodox Christmas and its cultural place in Alaska:

“Most Orthodox Christians in the New World, following the lead of the Greek Orthodox Churches, use the ‘new’ Gregorian calendar and celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, 13 days before those who follow the ‘old’ Julian Calendar, will celebrate Christmas this week, Jan. 7. Those who continue to calculate their religious holidays on an outmoded calendar that is clearly nearly two weeks behind the astronomical realities of the universe, however, do so for two rather simple reasons … or maybe three!

“The first is simply that the Julian calendar has been in use since the time of its namesake, Julius Caesar, and is still in use in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Serbia, Palestine, the Monastic Republic of Mount Athos, as well as Ethiopia. Immigrants whose ancestors came from these places tend to keep the old calendar in continuity and solidarity with their ethnic roots and traditions. The missions who inherited the Julian calculations, like in Alaska, keep the customs they inherited from their spiritual ancestors, the saints who first brought the Gospel to North America 220 years ago.

“The second is more complicated. American culture has become so increasingly secular that any mention of the original meaning of Christmas, the birth of Christ — the date from which the whole planet counts its years — is practically impossible. With few exceptions, the ‘carols’ broadcast on radio stations and in shopping malls are of the Rudolph, Frosty and White Christmas variety. The traditional carols, praising God, welcoming the Christ-Child, celebrating the Incarnation have been banned from public arena. Here in Anchorage, the only place I heard a Christian carol was while I was on hold, waiting for a GCI agent to answer. I invoked God’s blessing on my phone company!

“So having another, later, second Christmas allows those of us who celebrate Dec. 25 as the Santa Claus, Reindeer and sleigh, elves and presents holiday to then focus totally on the religious essence of the Feast: ‘Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One! And the Earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One! Angels with shepherds glorify Him! The wise men journey with the star: since for our sake the Pre-Eternal God is born as a little child!’

“In ancient times, the Yup’ik people in Southwest Alaska invited neighboring villages to feasts at this time of year, thanking the animals who had sacrificed themselves, allowed themselves to be hunted, killed, skinned and eaten, during the past year, and also in memory of their own relatives who had passed away during the previous 12 months. Entire villages visited their neighbors and received gifts. This has been combined with the Ukrainian custom of carrying a large pinwheel-shaped ‘star’ from house to house, singing Orthodox hymns and folk carols and then feasting and receiving gifts in memory of those who have died — just as was the custom long before the Christian faith arrived.

“To change to the astronomically more accurate calendar would deprive those following the old (ways) of their chance to celebrate a religious holiday, sever their bond of faith and love with their spiritual ancestors and deprive the non-Orthodox village guests of the chance to participate in Slaaviiq, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ which now incorporates so much of ancient Yup’ik culture and makes the holiday a beautiful synthesis of the old and new, the Alaska Native and the Slavic Christian streams that flow together in what is often called ‘Russian’ Christmas, although it is a celebration that is uniquely Alaskan.

“And we get to take advantage of all the post-Dec. 25 Christmas sales too!”

Orthodox Bishop David Mahaffey also shared thoughts with me on the difference between the two calendars.

“It is not a matter of ‘right’ vs. ‘wrong,’ but what is more important to you; holding fast to the traditions we have been taught, (2 Thessalonians 2:15), or having a desire to keep the calendar in line with the its actual movement around the sun?

“I don’t see either way as being wrong; they are just different ways of observing important dates in the life of the Church. One must also be willing to admit, there is less secular distraction on Jan. 7 than there is on Dec. 25. Thus, in one way, waiting to celebrate the birth of Christ until January has a stronger focus on the spiritual aspect of Christ’s birth than does the December feast.

“So, I understand the logic behind both dates, and until we are able to reach an understanding that both East and West can agree upon, this is going to continue to be situation we live with. Somehow, I think it would be better if we were all on the same calendar, and I pray that we are able to find a way to come together in the interests of fulfilling the command in the Gospel, to be of one mind (Rom. 15:6 and others).”

Next Christmas, I urge you experience Russian Orthodox Christmas, as I did.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at adn.com/churchvisits.

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