Slavii stars and songs: Bristol Bay celebrates Orthodox Christmas

Jan 9, 2020

S'prasdnikom! Along with Eastern Orthodox churches around the state, congregations around Bristol Bay celebrated Christmas on January 7, and with it the first day of slavii. 

Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG

It’s bitterly cold outside, but it's warm in St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Church in Dillingham. Incense hangs in the air as parishioners pray and sing in the Christmas service.

Four boys and men made their way to the front of the church and began spinning large wooden stars covered in tinsel, with pictures of saints at their center. This is the beginning of slavii. For seven days, carolers travel from house to house with the stars, and some travel to other communities as well. The tradition of “starring” symbolizes the biblical story of the wise men following a star to find the infant Jesus.

Parishioners spinning slavii stars at St. Seraphim of Sarov's Orthodox Church in Dillingham.
Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG

“Everyone should have respect following the star, just like the wisemen. We’re proclaiming the birth of Christ to as much people as possible,” said John Casteel, speaking at the Dillingham parish house following the service.

The parish house was the first stop for the stars, where people sang and rested. Slavii originated in Ukraine, but it has a long tradition in Bristol Bay. That tradition has changed over the years, as dog sleds were replaced by snowgoes, which were eventually replaced by air travel. Marilyn Casteel prepared that first potluck. She has watched slavii change over the years.

Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG

“I could remember a long time ago – I must have been about six or seven," she said. "Not many of us had vehicles. Everybody ran around in their snow machines. We dressed really warm, a bunch of us hopped in the back of trucks, and off we went. And there was a lot of people."

Now, the visits are a little more scheduled. But when she was growing up, the groups of singers were less predictable.

“You know, we’d leave the light on in the house, and go to bed, and when the star came to the house, whether it be two, three o’clock in the morning, we’d hear them – my dad would hear them. And we’d all get up, and they’d sing and eat, and we went back to bed,” she said.

Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG

After the meal at the parish house, the congregation split up. Each group was bringing a star to sing at houses around the community. One of the houses was close by, and a spread of stew, bread and cookies awaiting the visitors.

“There’s two Dillingham stars, one Aleknagik, and one Portage [Creek]," said Tod Dancer. He described the stars’ circuitous paths around the region and back to their home parishes.

“Aleknagik’s going to go up the lakes," he said. "Portage is leaving tomorrow morning, and then Aleknagik’s leaving in the afternoon to New [Stuyahok]. Both of them will be up in New Stu.”

Those stars will then travel to Koliganek and Ekwok before returning to their home parishes in time for New Year’s Eve on January 13.

Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG

“I just remember it being a really bumpy ride behind my dad going to New Stu. But we were going to Stu – going to slavii," said Ida Nelson. 

Nelson lives in Igiugig, and she does a lot of jobs in the village – she’s the school cook, the head tribal clerk and the fuel manager. She said that Igiugig went starring on Tuesday, and that a group from Kokhanok was arriving on Wednesday afternoon. Nelson has been celebrating slavii since she was a kid.

“I remember my mom making us clean the house every week right before slavii," she said. "'Cause we would have a regular western Christmas, and then right after that we would go right into getting the house cleaned and ready. We would even have to paint our house.”

For Nelson, slavii holds many memories from when she was growing up, as well as the traditions that her family and other elders passed on. She said it is important for her to help carry them on.

“It’s just a really happy time for us, and me, at least. And then my kids even enjoy it, cause they get ready for it too, because of my excitement for it,” she said. "I just want to say blasnego to everyone in Bristol Bay, and everyone have a good, happy new year.”

Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG

Parishioners spinning slavii stars at St. Seraphim of Sarov's Orthodox Church in Dillingham.
Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG

Parishioners singing on Christmas at St. Seraphim of Sarov's Orthodox Church.
Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG
Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG

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

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