Singing and star-twirling keep tradition alive during Russian Christmas

Christmas continues in Cordova

Members of St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Church in Cordova gather and sing during the last night of Russian Christmas on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018. Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times
Members of St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Church in Cordova gather and sing during the last night of Russian Christmas on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018. Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times

There is a soft murmur among the parishioners, growing steadily as candles are lit and the star is brought in.

The cold outside air seeps through the walls, as the warmth of people’s breath try fighting it.

St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Church in Cordova lost heat ten days ago, but the room is filled with warmth from the songs of Russian Christmas.

The tempo fluctuates, easing in the middle and gaining momentum at the end. Sung in Slavonic, Alutiiq and English, the Christmas songs are accompanied by a star, twirled throughout, with the exception of the song for the departed.

“The person holds the star and moves it; it represents eternal life,” said Darrel Olsen, who is the church’s starista.

The starista is responsible for the upkeep of the church, a job Olsen has been doing on and off for the past 30 years.

Russian Christmas, a three-night celebration beginning Jan. 7, starts at the church, followed by visits to the Cordova Community Medical Center, businesses around town and homes.

“The Russian Orthodox Christians follow the Gregorian calendar,” Denise Asp-Olsen said, explaining why they celebrate Christmas at the beginning of January.

For the past 40-50 years, the congregation has visited the hospital.

“I think we’re a pretty tight community here,” Darrel Olsen said. “We also like to share our home, you know. We love to share our tradition.”

He makes note of those who keep their decorations up through Russian Christmas, adding that he feels very fortunate in Cordova.

“I get a lot of people calling saying, ‘When’s Russian Christmas?’…to me that’s very special,” Olsen said.

As the night continues, the crowd grows becoming increasingly animated.

“Just the… excitement of all the people and the generosity of all the people, it’s awesome,” said Geraldine O’Brien, who sits on a chair near the commotion.

Treats including canned goods, money, homemade food and toys were scattered along the floor and counters at each stop they made during the night.

“74, I’m not gonna get down on the floor and fight for anything,” O’Brien said, laughing as people walked by and handed her treats. “The kids have respect for their elders.”

At Ernie Allen’s house, Elvis’ ‘Walking in a Winter Wonderland’ plays loudly as Glennora Allen dances carefully around the cans of food on the floor.

Eventually Elvis is turned off as the star is brought forward and the Slavonic songs begin.

“Singing and twirling the star, it’s keeping an old language alive,” said Kenneth Eleshansky, who began singing when he was six or seven. Eleshansky, 25, adds that even the native language is slowly dying out.

Eleshansky twirled the star at various locations throughout the night and made coffee for elders at Darrel Olsen’s house.

“The weight’s on my generations shoulders to keep it going,” he said. “I’m gonna do it until I can’t stand and twirl the star anymore and hopefully teach my kids how to do it.”

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Emily Mesner is a staff reporter and photographer for The Cordova Times. Reach her at Emily graduated from Central Michigan University, earning a degree in photojournalism with a cultural competency certificate. She first visited Alaska in 2016, working as a media intern for the National Park Service in Kotzebue and Denali National Park and Preserve, and has been coming back ever since. To see more photos, follow @thecordovatimes and @emilymesnerphoto on Instagram.