Slavii lights up Orthodox Christmas celebrations in Dillingham

Jan 8, 2019

S'prasdnikom, Bristol Bay! Along with Eastern Orthodox churches around the world, St. Serpahim of Sarov in Dillingham celebrated Christmas on Jan. 7.

St. Seraphim of Sarov Church in Dillingham celebrated Christmas on Jan. 7, joining celebrations in Eastern Orthodox churches across the state. One of the brightest traditions of the holiday is “slavii.” Carolers bring stars to households around town, often travelling to other communities as well. The tradition, originally from Ukraine, marks the biblical story of the wise men following a star to find the infant Jesus.

Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG

Father Michael Nicolai has been leading slavii in Dillingham for the past six years. He said that starring is a personal experience.

“For me, I was brought up into the starring to proclaim to everyone in their households that Christ is born. And for me, it was a great thing growing up because they expressed it as something very important in my life,” he explained.

This year, St. Seraphim of Sarov is housing stars from three communities: Dillingham, Aleknagik and Portage Creek. Another star will remain in the church throughout the celebrations, which end Jan. 13.

As the Christmas mass concluded, boys and men gathered at the front of the church. Each took up a large, 

Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG

glittering star made of tinsel and cardboard and began to spin them as the congregation sang hymns in English, Yup’ik and Slavonic. The carolers then brought the stars to the parish house, where they sang, shared a meal and rested. Then they split up: one slavii group visited homes around town, while another drove to Aleknagik. The Portage Creek star travels to Manokotak on Jan. 8.

Marilyn Casteel’s house was the first stop for Dillingham’s slavii group.

Parishioners walk from the church to the parish house.
Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG

“Back in them days, we would all get ready, and if the slaviis didn’t come, we would put everything away, keep our lights on, keep our door open, and we’d go to bed," Casteel said. "And when the slaviis came, we would hear them, we’d all get up, we’d got everything ready. You know, my grandpa always said, ‘Do not ever turn away the slaviis.”

Leona Carr is from Portage Creek. She spent Christmas caroling in different houses around Dillingham and has been starring since she was a little girl.

“Every year we slavii. Before we used to go all the way upriver and to all the villages. We used to go by dog sled a long time ago, and by snow machine. The Elders and kids usually fly, but now we’ve been mainly flying. And in Dillingham here we go with vehicles. But we still always have a star, you know, following the star.”

Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG

When Carr was little, slavii groups would travel all day to get to neighboring communities.

“The families used to have their own dog teams," she said. "And then, I remember as a little kid when we went to snow machines and they were going down to Portage, we could see a whole line – probably hundreds and hundreds of snow machines. When all the stars were coming down from upriver to Portage, when I was a little girl, we used to all watch outside the house, you know, watching all the snow goes. And we’d have to go up to the church and go meet the star at the church.”

This year, the Portage Creek star will make a final journey to its home parish on Jan. 13 – New Year’s Eve. Until then, the stars travel between communities around the region for a week; Dillingham is expecting stars from Koliganek, Levelok and New Stuyahok. 

Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG

Contact the author at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.