In our October issue, we shared several stories of Moravians visiting Alaska. During one of those visits, visitors met Ruth Strand Williams, a lifelong Alaskan. Ruth told visitors of her memories of the now abandoned Moravian Children’s Home. One of those visitors, Alice Mosebach, encouraged Ruth to share her remembrance of Christmas in Alaska during that time.
Moravian missionaries came to the Kuskokwim region of Alaska in the 1800s to set up a mission to reach the Yupik Eskimo people.
I had the privilege of having a small window of time in 1946–1952 to observe the Moravians engaged in their beautiful struggle to bring the Gospel to this area.
Christmas at the Moravian Children’s Home was a flurry of celebration. The staff of about eight people began organizing 40 children into carpenters building a stage with an entire wall of spruce boughs, artists drawing the town of Bethlehem on a large wall blackboard depicting three wise men of the East on camels led by a star to where the young child lay. Choirs practiced the songs—Brightest and Best, Once in Royal David’s City, We Three Kings, etc. A soloist was chosen to sing Morning Star. Practice, practice, practice, because the surrounding villages of Kwethluk and Akiak were also anticipating a wonderful experience. They hitched up their dog teams and loaded their wives and children into fur-lined sleds and travelled the narrow paths across tundra, portages and rivers. The Home hosted this celebration every year on the Sunday before Christmas.
The girl’s dorm housed the schoolroom which doubled as a church on Sunday. On the back wall of the schoolroom was a wall structure depicting the Putz, a manger scene with carved figurines of Mary, Jesus, shepherds, wise men, sheep and camels. A black velvet backdrop from which shone a large star and numerous other smaller twinkling stars completed the scene. This amazing effect was created by a light bulb shining behind the black velvet.
The Christmas Story was the central theme of our celebration. It was portrayed in a pageant in front of the spruce bough stage. Children who lived at the Home became Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men, inn keepers and angels.
Afterwards was a Candle Service where beeswax candles in their crepe paper skirts were passed to each person. The lights were then turned out and the congregation sang carols. The soloist sang Morning Star. The night truly turned wondrous, as the first Christmas must have been.
Then, mugs of coffee with cream and sugar were passed out to everyone, children and all, with the fragrant love feast buns wrapped in paper napkins twisted at the top. Christmas had come!
On Christmas Eve, all 40 of us kids hung our stockings around the dining room. Every year in the spring, each child received a huge box from their sponsoring church in the lower 48. A large barge came into the town of Bethel bringing the yearly supply of food in the spring. Bethel was 20 miles away and the Yupik village of Kwethluk was three miles away. Each box contained clothes for an entire year, including Christmas and Easter dresses, toys and notions for Christmas.
We were told that we might hear Santa’s sleigh land on the roof and maybe hear the reindeer hooves. As little girls we would be all ears, straining to hear what was transpiring on the roof. All that we vaguely heard were footsteps in the attic above our heads, missionaries, or should I say Santa’s elves, scurrying around the missionary boxes gathering Christmas presents. The presents were pre-wrapped by the host church.
I remember sitting after school at our desks with our pens and inkwells writing thank you notes to churches in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Winston-Salem and Greensboro, North Carolina, Bethlehem and Lititz, Pennsylvania and others.
Anticipation was so thick that it could be cut with a knife. Sleep didn’t come easy that night. The next morning, after breakfast, each little girl got a new doll dressed beautifully, fragrant bars of soap, lavender scented talcum powder, toothbrushes and toothpastes (which we promptly ate), much to the dismay of the staff. They quickly learned to mix salt and soda in mason jars for tooth hygiene. We got color books and books, paper dolls with cut-out dresses, stocking monkeys, etc.
Fun, fun, fun!
Our stockings had an apple and an orange (rare commodities in the winter) and hard candy. At naptime, we had to leave our booty outside our dorm door lest we get no sleep.
I have endeavored to pass down to my children and grandchildren these wonderful Moravian Christmas traditions of my childhood. They are an integral part of who I am today and have become my traditions.
Written by Ruth Strand Williams (pictured at top of page in red dress; also pictured at right)
From the December 2013 Moravian Magazine