ANIAK – The star boys gather on a bright cold January afternoon in the biggest store in the village for what most everyone says is one of the best times of the year.
It's Orthodox Christmas, or Slaviq, and in Aniak it is celebrated in three languages with song and prayer and sometimes in other languages too. Church members assemble in family homes, in the tiny little church across the frozen slough and in the Alaska Commercial Co. store. Everywhere, a boy carries a spinning star.
The Orthodox faith brought to Alaska by Russian missionaries and a Ukrainian bishop is embraced in Southwest Alaska, where it has become a culture within a culture in Yup'ik villages.
Most people in the United States are taking down Christmas trees and ornaments this time of year, but parishioners here use the older Julian calendar, which designates Jan. 7 as Christmas Day. The celebration goes on for a week, with house-to-house feasting and caroling all night and well into the next day.
Aniak has no resident priest, so parishioners lead services themselves. People travel from nearby villages too.
"It's like regular Christmas but it's more," said Crim F. Phillips Sr., serving as choir leader of Protection of Virgin Mary Church in Aniak, which sometimes uses the old Greek name for Mary, Theotokos. He recently has been living in his nearby home village, Chuathbaluk.
During Slaviq time, everyone works together as one, he said, before Monday's celebrations began. Your home can be blessed whether you are Orthodox or not. People pull in close and give quick kisses on cheeks to wash away any bad residue.
"You can feel the friendship and everything. You can feel the love in there," Phillips said
"Glory to God in the highest," they sing inside the AC store, near the toys, gifts and bulk items of pancake mix, cooking oil and chocolate-covered raisins.
When the caroling and prayers end at the AC, staff hands out reusable grocery bags with drinks, candy and canned fruit. Slaviq has been a tradition at the store for years, said manager Vince Winter. Families usually pass out small gifts and so does the store.
The group leaves the store and travels by truck, snowmachine and four-wheeler across Aniak slough for another round of Slaviq.
Sophie Sakar is nearly 75 and still a forceful singer. Her favorite Slaviq carols are in Yup'ik.
At the church, they sing in the dark night by the graves of those who have died.
"We're not only Slaviqing for us. We're Slaviqing for the relatives and families and friends that passed on," Phillips said.
Sakar's parents built the Aniak church when she was 7 using her father's beaver trapping money. "No donations," she said.
This night, fire glows in the church woodstove. With negative temperatures outdoors, breath still condenses in the air. The church is tiny, worn and stained, yet welcoming and full of life. "It's getting so old," Sakar says. The parish is trying to raise money to build a new one, members said.
A boy rings the church bell, beckoning all.
While the village of more than 500 residents is losing its elders, there are more star boys than in recent years, at least nine, members said. Some take turns holding the shining, spinning star decorated with streams of garland, festive bows and a burning candle, a symbol of the star that signaled Christ's birth.
When the star twirls, the whole family is blessed, said Johnnie Kelila, a church leader who along with wife Julia opened their home for a feast Monday night.
People used to travel a long way by dog team or foot for Slaviq, he said. Those were good days, he said. It's still a passion for people. On Sunday night, Slaviq caroling and feasting went on until 5 a.m. the next day.
The girls recite biblical readings. They aren't even allowed to step behind the spinning star. Asked if they wanted to hold it, several said they didn't because they want to keep the traditions. They said they love Slaviq just as much as the star boys.
"We get candy. We can read" about God, said Mary Kelila, 11, one of three sisters who gave readings at the family home. The feast that followed included turkey, dressing, bean soup, meat and rice, bread and many desserts.
During Monday's ceremony, a gun was fired just outside, a custom that still makes many church members — and visitors — jump. Several church members, including elders, weren't sure of how that originated. Perhaps, they said, the shots scare away bad spirits or push out the hurts that are inside.
Curtains are kept open during Slaviq to give all the departed loved ones a way in, so their spirits can sing too, said Nora Kelila, who grew up in Bethel. Kelila was born Catholic and converted to the Orthodox faith after studying it for years.
Sometimes, she said, the singing gets really loud.