On Sunday morning, the pews of Anchorage's New Testament Church were full of jittery boys in ivory satin suits and girls in flower crowns and frilly dresses. Babies wore tuxedos. Mothers wore wide-brimmed hats and proud looks on their faces.
In Samoan churches in Anchorage and around the world, the second Sunday of October is dedicated to celebrating children.
Each year on "White Sunday," children and women dress entirely in brand-new white formal clothes and take over church services, offering an epic program of songs, Bible recitations, speeches and skits performed mostly in the Samoan language. This can last four or five hours.
For Samoan children, the day rivals Christmas in terms of childhood excitement, said Evangeline Morisa, now a grown-up member of the congregation, which meets in a tucked-away storefront east of downtown.
White Sunday is celebrated in at least a dozen Samoan churches in Anchorage, which, according to U.S. Census data, is home to the highest concentration, per capita, of Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians on the mainland. White Sunday services are also held in Samoan immigrant hubs such as Tacoma, Wash., and Long Beach, Calif., as well as New Zealand.
The day is a reminder of the central role children play in Polynesian life, said pastor Niutunu Faiupu at the service.
"(The children) will remember this kind of day for the rest of their lives," Faiupu told his congregation in English. "And it is an honor for us parents, too."
Preparations can take months. Families order bespoke outfits from tailors on the island or in Anchorage far in advance, said Morisa. Even the youngest children practice with their Sunday school groups to memorize Bible verses and songs.
After performing successfully at the service, children are given special privileges, such as eating before elders, Morisa said.
"It's a time to shine," she said.
(Lots of children choose McDonalds for their special meal, Morisa's sister Maria Morisa wrote in an email.)
White Sunday comes from an old tradition, said Evanegline Morisa's mother, Uluola Morisa, speaking from the Golden Corral restaurant, where the family had gathered for a post-church meal. Scholars say White Sunday came to Samoa with missionaries in the 1800s.
At the New Testament Church on Sunday, babies were baptized with a few words and a kiss on the cheek from the pastor. Skits were performed. Bible verses were read from memory. Parents recorded it all with iPhones and iPads.
One young girl in glittery shoes and a plastic tiara hit her limit at hour two of White Sunday services.
She fell fast asleep sprawled across a row of chairs, tiara clutched at her side, as the adult world buzzed around her.
Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at email@example.com or 257-4344.