While Chugiak-Eagle River’s population is far more diverse today than a century ago, in the beginning only the Russian Orthodox faith was represented.
Priests at St. Nicholas Church served the Native village, teaching of the birth of Jesus Christ. While most of us observe December 25 as the birthday of Jesus, Christmas for the Orthodox is celebrated each year on January 7.
When Chugiak was founded in 1947 by a group of homesteaders who proved up on small tracts as well as larger parcels, those settlers primarily were Christian Protestants. Three houses of worship existing in 1953 were Chugiak Chapel, Chugiak Methodist Church and Immanuel Gospel Church. They soon were followed by others affiliated with various denominations, most faiths currently represented.
The Chugiak Calendar of Dec. 22, 1953, reported: “Chugiak will be a busy place over the holidays with many gala affairs planned. The P.T.A. started off with the first party at the school last Friday the 18th; then the Girl Scout party on Saturday, and the Community Club party this Wednesday, Dec. 23rd. An old time and folk dance is scheduled at the club house the night after Christmas and the big Firemen’s Ball will be on New Year’s Eve.”
Chugiak Chapel’s schedule that year called for poems to be read by children of the Sunday school and a play with the title “Christmas Eve and All is Well.” Performing were Kenneth Wert, Dora Ann Craig, Paul and Ruby Huling, Linda Hansen, Joyce and Rheta Hutchings, Dan Reed and Bill Smith. Soloists were Blanche Huling, Mrs. Roe Huling and Miss Craig.
At the Methodist Church, Lester Fetrow, superintendent of the Sunday school, directed a Christmas pageant—as he was to do for several years in a row.
Youth of the church held Watch Night parties on New Year’s Eve, enjoying dancing to Jitterbug numbers as they awaited the witching hour.
Big in the early Fifties was the Christmas Lane, celebrating the extension of electricity to Chugiak-Eagle River by Matanuska Electric Association. Businesses along the Palmer Highway between Eagle River and Eklutna were encouraged to decorate their buildings. Homeowners throughout the area were also asked to decorate. Prizes were offered for the best exhibits in several different categories.
The Anchorage holiday celebration was participated in by local musicians Arthur and Eleanor Braendel and Ruth Alice Briggs. The Braendels performed in the Anchorage Symphony of which they were among the founders. Briggs sang as a member of the Anchorage Chorus.
Briggs, whose husband Dale served for many years as president of the electric cooperative, liked to share a favorite memory of the Christmas season.
As she returned home one evening following rehearsal for the annual Christmas concert, she was overwhelmed with emotion upon cresting Eagle River Hill. In the distance she saw a single light shining near the road in an area that previously had always been dark at night. Drawing closer, she saw that the light adorned a wreath hung on her front door. Their home had been connected to the grid during the day. Dale surprised her by displaying the lighted wreath where she would see it as she approached their home.
Another big attraction during the early holiday celebrations was the Firemen’s Ball held on New Year’s Eve. The volunteer fire service was a highly valued part of the community with many residents serving in the group. Always in need of money to pay for fuel, tools and specialized gear, a regular schedule of fundraisers was held to benefit the service.
The firefighters in turn were appreciative of the support from the people they served. They often gave talks on fire safety at schools and meetings of civic groups. Collections of clothing and other necessities were made available to residents who suffered a loss. Those efforts have continued over the decades.
A special neighborhood Christmas display was begun by former Chugiak Fire Chief Bruce Bartley and his wife Theresa.
They filled five-gallon containers with water and set them out to freeze. Brought in and turned over just before the contents became solid, the slush was removed to allow a candle to be placed in the bottom. On Christmas Eve, the luminaries were lined up on Jayhawk Drive, the street where the Bartleys lived in Birchwood. After they recently moved Outside the tradition has been carried on by neighbors. Even though the days with sub-freezing weather are shrinking, hundreds of the glowing ice blocks are lined up along the mile-long stretch and side streets.
Also continuing is the community-wide holiday decoration exhibition. Many areas go all out to create displays that show their appreciation for the season.
Each year, the Eagle River Branch of First National Bank of Alaska holds a gingerbread house contest. Community members bring in their creations to be displayed during the holiday. Customers get to indicate their choice for the best design—but not take it home.
An annual event sponsored by the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce is the Merry Merchant Munch in early December.
Stores host Christmas displays and serve goodies to all who visit.
Judges tour the participating businesses and award prizes in various categories. Adding to the festivity often is a visit by Santa, appearing in a reindeer-drawn sleigh.
While on the subject of “goodies,” the “Cook Book and Tall Tales” put out some years ago by the Fire Flies, the auxiliary of the Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue crew. It contains recipes provided by families and friends of the firefighters. On the reverse side of each recipe is an anecdote or two.
The recipe for Old-Fashioned Popcorn Balls submitted by Maxine McKinley, for example, is backed by a note that Marianne Tucker, known affectionately as “German Mama,” was a frequent benefactor. Even at 20-below, she would show up at fire scenes with hot coffee and food. She also kept the kitchen and cupboards stocked at Latimer Station and even kept it clean. A plaque reading “German Mama’s Kitchen” was placed over the door in recognition of her service.
As mentioned above, other faiths and denominations now are represented here. Some of them do not observe the Christmas holiday. Their beliefs are respected even if not discussed here.
However, the message of Christmas is one of good will to all, joy to the world and peace on earth. It is that message that is extended to everyone at this time of year. Peace be with you and yours.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Readers, please make sure to check the calendar in the center of the Alaska Cache for many upcoming holiday events.