Christmas is often hard on military families, especially when they are far from family. The best thing to do is make memories of your own. We did that when the Executive Presbyter asked the Good Chaplain to lead a Christmas Eve candlelight service in Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, in 1996. Memories were undoubtedly made for our family that year.
Anaktuvuk Pass is a small village in Brooks Mountain Range 150 miles above the Arctic Circle. The only way in or out is via dog sled or airplane, although the people in town did have some vehicles to drive around town. The “terminal” at the landing strip also served as the post office. Think “Northern Exposure” only more remote.
The Good Chaplain is a Presbyterian minister. Above the Arctic Circle, tiny villages dotted the north slope of Alaska. Many of the towns had small, pastorless Presbyterian churches. The Presbytery of the Yukon called on the Good Chaplain from time to time to preach.
When the Good Chaplain first proposed the idea of going there for Christmas, I was reluctant. People in the village stopped living in sod huts only 20 years before. Most of the houses did not have flush toilets. And when the last pastor left, a group of angry teens burned down the manse. Alcohol and domestic abuse are rampant in many of these villages. Did I want to expose our 11-year-old twin girls to that? Besides, Christmas is our family thing.
On the other hand, how cool would it be to spend Christmas in an Inupiat village, learning about a new culture? The girls were all for it, so we went. We even stayed in the school with its Olympic-size swimming pool and running water.
I fell in love the minute we landed. The village, in between two mountain peaks, seemed busy, especially for such a small town. People walked, drove, rode on snow machines. I’m not sure where they were going, but they were on the move.
Subsistence living, or living off the land, was the primary source of food and income. Catching one whale could feed the village for months, not to mention the uses of the blubber, skin, and bones. Caribou were plenty in the area. And, of course, the village received a portion of the proceeds from the Alaska Pipeline.
The town met in the school gymnasium for a gift exchange and meal this Christmas Eve. We did not know about this event, but they included us, even giving gifts to the girls. The meal was caribou stew. We thought the stew had rice in it, but then the Good Chaplain swiped a big glob of fat out of his mouth, and we realized it wasn’t rice at all. We didn’t eat that much fat at home.
I sat in the bleachers watching the villagers interact with each other. Although many were blood relatives, they treated everyone as if they were family, including us. At one point, a young mother thrust her baby into my arms and told me to watch her for a little while. I was astounded. Never would I hand my child over to a perfect stranger. Then the Good Chaplain reminded me I couldn’t take the baby anywhere because there were no roads out of the village. Good point.
I especially enjoyed watching the people interact with the elders of the village. Everyone treated them with respect and kindness. They listened to them and seemed to take heed to the wisdom they imparted. I wished all of society would be so deferential to our seniors.
Soon, the real magic of the evening would begin — the church service. The Good Chaplain, the girls, and I trudged up the snow-covered hill to the little wooden church above the village to set up for service. As the time for the service neared, no one was coming. As we stood on the front porch, we could see a commotion in town at the medical station. A young girl broke her leg in an accident, and a helicopter transported her to the hospital in Fairbanks. After the helicopter left, people made their way to the church.
I commented to The Good Chaplain that the only thing that could make the evening better was the Northern Lights to come out. However, one of the villagers told me it probably wouldn’t happen because it was too warm.
The service itself was beautiful; the Good Chaplain preached through a translator. Singing “Silent Night” in both English and Inupiat in candlelight was a highlight of the evening until we stepped outside. The Northern Lights were indeed dancing across the sky. The elder, who thought it was too warm for the lights, piled us into her sport utility vehicle and took us to a place where the lights were more spectacular than they were at the church. She sang a song meant to cause the Aurora Borealis to dance across the sky as we watched in awe.
Soon it was time to head back to the school and bed. When we got there, we could hear townspeople over the school’s CB radio calling out to each other, thanking them for the gifts, and wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. It was indeed a magical night.