Monday, January 30, 2012

Kodiak's Russian New Year Celebration

Masqueraders in Afognak Village in the 1930s went to serious lengths
to disguise their identities, including wearing gloves as to not be
identified by their hands. Kodiak Historical Society P 639-8n.
Masquerading for Russian New Year continues as a Kodiak tradition, with the 2012 event earlier this month drawing an animated crowd, thanks to sponsorship efforts from the Sun’aq Tribe and the Native Village of Afognak. Up until around the 1940s or so, masqueraders donned fantastical homemade costumes and went en mass from door to door, disguising even their voices as to protect their identities. They would wear borrowed clothes and change their posture and stride to confuse onlookers. Once a masquerader’s identity was discovered they were out of the game, but not for long! Many people would have several costumes in waiting so that they could continue the masquerading rounds.

Eli Metrokin wore this mask
for Kodiak's Russian New
Years in the 1930s.
In her book Faraway Island: Childhood in Kodiak, Carolyn Erskine Andrews recalled a particularly memorable Russian New Years for the Erskine family. Her mother, Nellie, and Nellie’s friend Mrs. Finnegan decided to go as a monkey and an organ grinder. Nellie pieced together a costume that bore a passing resemblance to a monkey, but her efforts were in vain. Most Kodiak villagers had never seen a monkey before and had no idea what an organ grinder was. Add to this the fact that Nellie squatted and acted like a monkey for the entirety of the evening’s festivities, and you can understand that the villagers were likely left perplexed as to Mrs. Erskine’s behavior. Apparently, Nellie’s muscles were sore for days due to her monkey-like charades.

Recently, Mary and Joseph Jensen donated a masquerader’s mask, which was worn by Mary’s father, Eli Metrokin, in the 1930s. The wire mesh mask still has the colored outlines of eyes, nose, and mouth drawn in faded tones. Mary described how villagers would tie cheesecloth around their face and then put on the wire masks as to distort their features. She recalls that it was a special thing, to have a wire mask. Other old-timers recall that masquerading costumes and masks were for sale at Kraft’s and Erskine’s stores.

This photograph from Afognak Village helps us to see how the mask above
was fashioned into a costume. Kodiak Historical Society P 639-7n.
Within the museum I recently came across a wonderful collection of photographs from Afognak Village, taken in the 1930s. A schoolteacher captured masqueraders as they were entertained in a village home. Compare Mr. Metrokin’s mask with those in the photograph to the right, and you get a sense as to how the disguises were fashioned. It appears likely that the wire masks sold in Kodiak were also sold in Afognak Village stores during the same period.

Do you have masquerading photographs and objects from Kodiak’s past?  In your next foray into the attic, see what turns up. Who knows, perhaps Nellie’s monkey costume is just waiting to be discovered.


  1. How fun! In rural Virginia, we had a similar tradition called Belsnickeling. The disguised people would go to friends' homes to be "guessed." The homeowners provided refreshments, and sometimes there was singing and music for entertainment. Belsnickeling took place between Christmas and New Year's. This custom also died out after WWII but continued a bit longer in some mountain areas.

  2. Awesome article Anjuli! Eli Metrokin is my good friends grandfather, I can't wait to send him your story.
    Fred Sargent