A long Christmas in Shishmaref
The children of Shismaref Lutheran Church join in the Christmas festivities.
By Lisa Smith Fiegel
In Shishmaref, Alaska, Christmas means this: a pageant, a reindeer stew feed and a week of games, bookended by worship at Shishmaref Lutheran Church.
“Everyone is welcome; everyone participates,” said Mary Huntington, who grew up in Shishmaref, an Inupiaq Eskimo village of about 600 people some 20 miles below the Arctic Circle in Northwest Alaska. It’s hardly an exaggeration, Mary said, to say that the whole village turns out for at least part of the festivities that run from Christmas to New Year’s.
The week starts in a way that outsiders might recognize: a Christmas Eve pageant where kids memorize verses, the choir sings and someone reads the Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel. The church is packed, said Mark Orf, who has served as pastor at Shishmaref Lutheran for about four years. He estimates that about 350 people pack into the sanctuary, some standing and others sitting on laps. This scene plays out in churches across the nation.
Something’s different here
Here’s what’s different in Shishmaref: Everyone brings wrapped presents for their family members. The presents go under the tree; extras flood the sacristy and church offices. After worship, the presents are distributed and everyone goes home to open them. It’s like a big family party. “The joy of celebrating is just huge,” said Mark. “It’s just really fun to be a part of.”
The next day, there is Christmas Day worship at the church and the reindeer stew community feast at the school gym. The feast draws a huge crowd too, said Mark. And then the games begin!
Starting on Dec. 26, the residents of Shishmaref participate in a week of games. There are foot races, dog mushing races, traditional Eskimo games and sillier modern games. Each day features different events with several age and gender categories. Mary, who is the assistant principal at Shishmaref’s K-12 school, said the games sometimes seem to go on forever, since there are so many age categories. That’s deliberate, she said, because more age categories mean more winners. It’s done with a sense of giving, the sense of wanting to include everybody.
Some games are gender specific. Women, including elders, participate in games such as passing an orange chin-to-chin or popping balloons by sitting on them. “There are no worries about who is watching, we just go out there and have fun,” said Mary.
Men have their own games, mostly traditional Eskimo games, such as rawhide pull, pinky pull and leg wrestling. These happen in the gym every night and large crowds show up to watch. Mark said the competitions go on for hours and the crowds stick around. “It’s interesting that people are still interested in ancient traditions. It’s still as lively today as it was back then,” he said, noting that the town has celebrated Christmas this way since at least the 1960s (he’s seen pictures) and probably longer.
Celebrating culture and life together
Mark says he doesn’t know if the festivities were begun to deal with the darkness — the village gets about 2.5 hours of dusky daylight this time of year — but it does help. “At almost the darkest time of the year, we bring people out, we say, ‘Let’s get together. Let’s not sit around and mourn in the dark.’”
Mary said the celebration is a way to express the Alaska Native culture of giving, acceptance and togetherness. “I like the way it brings out the best in people,” Mary said. “We identify culturally during the season in the giving, in showing appreciation and in participating in activities and events.”
After a week of games, the celebration ends with a massive, all-town game of men’s Eskimo football on Dec. 31. “It’s kind of like tackle soccer,” Mark said. The men play down at the frozen lagoon and others watch. The first team to score two goals wins; the losing team serves coffee and cookies at an after-party. Players have fun, whether they win or lose. “I'm getting excited thinking about it.”
That same night, after the football game, there is one last Eskimo game in the school gym: the high kick, where men test their ability to kick a target raised higher and higher on a string. There’s also traditional Eskimo dancing and drumming to cap off the week.
The next day, Jan. 1, is the worship service at Shishmaref Lutheran that marks the end of the festivities. Mark leads worshipers in a Singspiration, where people request favorite hymns, share a solo or small-group song, and share prayer requests and testimony of God’s work in their life.
Lisa Smith Fiegel, an ELCA pastor, lives in Anchorage and is director for evangelical mission for the Alaska Synod of the ELCA.