When Brevig Mission Experienced its First Christmas Tree

Posted: December 8, 2020

By Keith Conger, “The Nome Nugget”

“The season of Christmas was drawing near, and with it came thoughts of a Christmas tree. But whence should a Christmas tree be found in this country where there are no trees. Indeed, one could find in the valleys a species of dwarf willow, small bushes which would attain to a height of two or three feet.”

The preceding passage was written by the pioneer missionary Reverend T. L Brevig in 1894 from his hut near present day Brevig Mission. In 1895 a young boy heard the story of Brevig’s adventures at a Christmas dinner party in the lower 48. It sparked a life-long interest in the pastor’s endeavors. This boy grew up to become a doctor, and was later offered the chance to transcribe Brevig’s writings. In 1944, Dr. J. Walter Johnshoy published them in a book called Apaurak in Alaska.

According to the book, in March of 1894 the Norwegian Lutheran Synod communicated with Brevig, who was living in the Midwest, about whether he would be willing to act as pastor for a few Norwegian Lapp families. The government had contracted the Lapp group to teach the Native people of the Port Clarence area the art of raising reindeer.

Five Lapp families were willing to come to the region to do the instruction but only if they had access to a Norwegian Lutheran pastor. His wife approved the idea, and Brevig accepted. Mr. and Mrs. Brevig, along with their small child, arrived at what was once called Teller Reindeer Station on August 5, 1894. Brevig had given the secondary assignment of teacher at the government school. Later in his first year he wanted to have a Christmas celebration at the school, so he made his intent of finding a Christmas tree known to the surrounding people. In the vicinity was a young Indian boy who had once lived on the Tanana River. He had experienced Christmas trees at his former home, and understood what the pastor was trying to achieve.

The boy was able to convey the message to the locals. Some of the natives found Brevig and told him that, “…two days journey inland there was a hill where there grew several trees with beautiful branches and tall as the house (some 12 to 15 feet).” It was decided that Mr. William Kjellman, the leader of the Lapps and the first supervisor of the local herd, would set out on the quest. He would take one of the Lapp men, and an English speaking native guide from the Kuskokwim. The party took a sleigh and four reindeer on a journey 70 miles into the interior.  On a hill that is 15 miles southeast of what came to be known as Igloo, they located four birch trees. They took the largest one.

The birch was set up during the week prior to Christmas, and the Brevigs began to decorate the interior of their building. The tree was trimmed with popcorn and candy and adorned with candles. It was to be the centerpiece for a Christmas celebration attended by many of the 200 Natives that lived nearby. Mrs. Brevig decided to practice the Christmas tradition of gift giving, so the women of the reindeer station began baking simple rolls covered with sugar. It took some doing, but the Brevigs were able to keep the local people from seeing the decorations until they were ready. Brevig reported that it was a great joy to watch the people’s reactions to the tree and its lights, even though the Native people’s wonder was mixed with some trepidation.

On that first Christmas night, in what is now known as Brevig Mission, Christmas hymns were sung in both English and in the Norse language. It was the first time the people of the area had heard the story of Jesus’ birth. The Christmas season continues to be a time of major importance in the modern-day village that lies on the northern shore of Port Clarence Bay. According to Brevig Mission resident Pauline Olanna, the current format of celebration began in the 1960s. The annual weeklong festivities begin with a Christmas Day feast that is attended by the entire village. All age groups help prepare many delicious foods. One of the mainstays of the feast is reindeer soup, with the meat being supplied from the herd owned by Olanna’s husband Leonard.

The week between Christmas and New Years is filled with outdoor races during the day. These include running races, and dog sled races when there are teams. Eskimo game competitions take place each night.