Holiday traditions around Norton Sound
By Miriam Trujillo
It’s the holiday season, and festive cheer is sweeping the Bering Strait region. The Nome Nugget reached out to communities in our region to find out what holiday traditions make their Christmas and New Year’s celebrations unique. Villages that responded include Koyuk, Shaktoolik, Gambell, Unalakleet, Elim, Teller, Brevig Mission, St. Michael, Stebbins and White Mountain.
Koyuk City Clerk Tracy Kimoktoak said the village celebrates with both indoor and outdoor activities. Indoors, the party includes things like board games and bingo. Outside, the fun includes activities such as a fishing derby, a dog contest, a house lighting contest, scavenger contest, an ice contest and a wood chopping contest.
All of this, Kimoktoak said, happens every night until January 1. Typically, the fun begins at the start of Christmas break, but Kimoktoak explains things are running a bit late this year. “All of this will happen if we have a good amount of volunteers,” Kimoktoak said.
Other traditions that possibly will be in Koyuk this year include a snow machine race and a maq competition. In the maq competition, Kimoktoak said, the village splits up into men vs. women. Each side tries to make the other side laugh, and the first to laugh loses. It was an incredibly special event when it featured some Elders that have since passed on, Kimoktoak said, and they are trying to bring it back.
On top of the games, Koyuk also celebrates with an annual New Year’s party prior to “the last church of the year,” according to Kimoktoak.
This year, Kimoktoak said, most activities will be held outside because the gym, the typical gathering space, is undergoing renovation. “I hope the weather will cooperate with us,” Kimoktoak said.
Shaktoolik celebrates with Native Games, according to VPSO Edgar Jackson Sr. He says, however, that the feeling of the celebrations has changed since the passing of some village Elders. Other traditions that are passing on with the older generation, according to Jackson Sr. are dog races, a men’s choir, door-to-door carolers and a gift giving party hosted by the church, with the whole town’s presents nestled under the big community Christmas tree. Jackson said the gift giving still happens to some extent, but it is on a smaller scale thanks to rising prices.
Jackson also said, before internet came to Shaktoolik, the village children used to enjoy the winter weather for the Christmas holidays, making snowmen and doing other winter activities. “You hardly see them anymore,” he said.
December 23 and 25 are the days to be celebrating Christmas in Gambell, according to Melissa Slwooko, the tribal enrollment officer for the Native Village of Gambell. Gambell’s gift exchange happens at the gym every year on Dec.23, according to Slwooko. On the 25th, according to Slwooko, it’s a Church program to “tell everyone what is the true meaning of Christmas”, filled with prayer and food.
Slwooko also said Gambell sometimes has a community New Year’s celebration, although it hasn’t had one recently.
In Unalakleet, the celebration starts early, with a community tree lighting to welcome the holiday season. Unalakleet’s Mayor Kelsi Ivanoff, said the traditions usually include singing, prayers, a volunteer choir of students and a countdown to the lighting. This year’s lighting, which happened Saturday December 17, was also supposed to involve Unalakleet’s traditional dance group, but inclement weather cut that part of the program short.
During the holidays, the big community celebration, according to Ivanoff, is centered around New Year’s rather than Christmas. The New Year’s games are held at the gym in the evening. Games include things such as NYO sports and relay races.
The other big event, according to Ivanoff, happens between Christmas and New Year’s: the Big Jamboree basketball tournament. Ivanoff says Unalakleet is hosting its 36th annual Jamboree this year. In the past, according to Ivanoff, the Jamboree included dog mushing, board game tournaments and other things besides basketball. She said that Unalakleet is trying to bring back the board game tournaments, at least, for this year.
In Elim, according to acting City Clerk Clarence Saccheaus, the fun continues throughout the entire holiday season. There are game nights every night for both the children and adults, as well as a Church service every night from December 26 through the 31st, with games after Church. There is also a three-on-three basketball tournament, according to Saccheaus, and a community feast.
Christmas Day in Elim brings the Christmas service and gift exchange, and on New Year’s Eve, the service lasts from ten until midnight. Then at midnight, Elim fires of fireworks and guns, and everyone brings their Christmas trees out of their houses to welcome the New Year. The games continue on January 1.
Teller’s Christmas festivities feature a community potluck and gathering, according to a Teller resident. There is Native traditional dancing after the potluck.
Then, Teller hosts one week’s worth of traditional Christmas games, every day from Christmas until New Year’s. “Our tribes come together and we shop for prizes for every game,” the Teller resident said. The games try to be inclusive of all age groups, from preschoolers through Elders, but some of the more demanding games are geared more to players from fourth grade to adulthood. The games, according to the resident, include a baby race, traditional NYO games such as the One Foot High Kick, a bubble gum race, where the first to blow a bubble wins, a potato race, which involves racing with a potato held between the player’s knees, thread the needle, and muck, where the last person to smile wins. Outdoor games include sledding, if the weather is good, and a fishing derby, where the first to successfully catch a fish through a hole in the ice wins.
Then on New Year’s Eve, everyone goes out at midnight for the fireworks sponsored by Mary’s Igloo Tribal Council.
Brevig Mission’s Christmas celebration is getting back on track after the pandemic, according to Tribal Coordinator Stephanie Fahey. This year will be the first year Brevig will host Christmas Games since the pandemic. The games, spanning from after Christmas to New Year’s, feature all kinds of races, bingo, a Christmas raffle, and a name pick, where players pick someone’s name and get a gift for that person. Christmas Day itself features a feast. Fahey also noted that lots of Brevig Christmas traditions are no longer celebrated, such as snow machine races and dog mushing.
St. Michael is keeping its Christmas traditions simple this year, according to Vice Mayor Flora Matthias. This year, the festivities will focus on the potluck gathering. “We (will) feed our people,” Matthias said. She noted that it’s been 50 years or so since the Christmas program, but then, she said, the “city would perform.” According to Matthias, someone dressed as Santa Claus would go door to door, inviting the children out with presents.
Stebbins will be hosting a basketball tournament around the holidays, according to a Stebbins resident. Additionally, according to the resident, Stebbins is hoping to hold a New Year’s feast.
In White Mountain, according to Elder and Church Board Member Rita Buck, one of the most memorable Christmas traditions is the bag of candy. Currently, that traditions means the City gives the people in each household a bag of candy and fruit. The City of White Mountain, according to Buck, also hosts a Christmas dinner on Christmas Day, delegating duties around town.
Another fun tradition is the alaini (fun) games, held in the gym for four nights during the Christmas holidays. According to Buck, this tradition started in the 80’s, “just for us to spend time with the kids. We wanted the adults to go spend time with kids.” The games include things like musical chairs, relay races and others. During the games, everyone takes a break at some point to get a door prize.
White Mountain’s Covenant Church, according to Buck, is also an epicenter of holiday cheer. The Sunday School Christmas program happens every year on Christmas Eve, a tradition that, Buck said, traces back to missionary times. Another Christmas tradition with roots in missionary times, is the Dorcas Christmas party. It’s an adults-only party, where the men bring men gifts, the women bring women gifts, and everyone is served cake and coffee and given a chance to catch up.
Even preparing for Christmas in White Mountain feels like a party, according to Buck. Before Christmas, the town comes together to decorate the church and Christmas tree and have a choir practice for the big night. The gathering features refreshments.
New Year’s is marked by a firework display on the river.
Like others, Buck noted that some White Mountain Traditions are disappearing, such as the snow machine race from White mountain to Golovin, and the dog team race.