Alaska Day


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Alaska Day

Type of Holiday: Historic
Date of Observation: October 18
Where Celebrated: Alaska, primarily Sitka
Symbols and Customs: Costume Ball, Cultural Performances, Memorial, Parade, Sporting Events, Transfer Ceremony Reenactment

ORIGINS

Alaska Day commemorates the formal transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States, which occurred on October 18, 1867. U.S. Secretary of State William Henry Seward had been pressing for the acquisition of Alaska as early as 1860, but negotiations took several years to complete. On March 29, 1867, Seward reached an agreement with the Russians by which the U.S. would purchase the territory of "Russian North America" for $7.2 million-about two cents per acre of land.

Many Americans criticized the idea, believing the purchase price to be too high for what was regarded as a frozen wasteland. Seward was publicly ridiculed, the Alaskan territory became known as "Seward's Icebox," and the proposed acquisition was referred to as "Seward's Folly." Nevertheless, the purchase was approved by the U.S. Congress, and the transfer was finalized in a ceremony held in Sitka, Alaska. But even the harshest critics changed their opinion about the value of the land when gold was discovered in Alaska in 1896, bringing thousands of people to the region during the Klondike Gold Rush.

As a historic holiday, Alaska Day commemorates a significant historical event. People throughout the world remember significant events in their histories. Often, these are events that are important for an entire nation and become widely observed. The marking of such anniversaries serve not only to honor the values represented by the person or event commemorated, but also to strengthen and reinforce communal bonds of national, cultural, or ethnic identity. Victorious, joyful, and traumatic events are remembered through historic holidays. The commemorative expression reflects the original event through festive celebration or solemn ritual. Reenactments are common activities at historical holiday and festival gatherings, seeking to bring the past alive in the present.

Alaska Day was first observed in Sitka in 1949 with the unveiling of a two-ton commemorative bronze statue dedicated to early Alaskan pioneers. Alaska Day became an official state holiday in 1954. The largest celebration takes place each year in Sitka during a festival highlighting the culture and history of Alaska. Festival activities include a COSTUME BALL , SPORTING EVENTS , a PARADE , and various CUL TURAL PERFORMANCES . A special proclamation from the mayor of Sitka encourages all men to grow beards and all women to dress in nineteenth century clothing for the duration of the festival.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Costume Ball

Those who attend Sitka's Alaska Day Ball must dress in native regalia, nineteenth century styled clothing, or semi-formal wear. The ball festivities include a period costume promenade and native regalia display, with awards and prizes given to the best outfit in a number of different categories.

Cultural Performances

The diverse cultural heritage of the Alaskan region is showcased in a series of music and dance performances. Folk dancing in native and Russian traditions is generally presented along with performances by local musicians and dance groups.

Memorial

A military memorial service is held at the Sitka National Cemetery each year as part of the Alaska Day observance.

Parade

Sitka holds an annual Alaska Day parade including marching bands, military color guard and marching units, decorated vehicles, classic cars, living history reenactments, and other costumed participants. The parade concludes at the site of the transfer ceremony reenactment.

Sporting Events

Many competitive sporting events are held during the Alaska Day festival in Sitka. Races are held for runners, kayakers, and bicyclists, and a croquet tournament is also held. The annual biathlon draws participants from all over Alaska.

Transfer Ceremony Reenactment

A ceremony recreating the transfer of Alaska from Russia to the U.S. is conducted immediately after the Alaska Day parade. The reenactment takes place on Castle Hill in Sitka, the site of the original transfer. Military troops gather to fire a salute as the Russian flag is lowered. A second salute is fired as the U.S. flag is raised. The ceremony concludes with the reading of the original transfer proclamations.

FURTHER READING

Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005.

WEB SITE

Official Alaska Day www.cityofsitka.com/alaskaday

Alaska Day

October 18
An official holiday in America's 49th and largest state, Alaska Day commemorates the formal transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States on October 18, 1867. The event, which took place at Sitka, was a sad one for the Russian colonists who had already made Alaska their home, and it must have seemed that Mother Nature was conspiring against them. A strong wind caught the Russian flag during the transfer ceremony, tangling it in the halyards. The seaman who was finally hoisted up to free it dropped the flag by mistake, and another gust swept it into a group of Russian bayonets. The tattered remains were presented to the weeping wife of Prince Dmitri Maksoutsoff, the last Russian governor.
Today the lowering of the Russian flag and the raising of the Stars and Stripes is reenacted every year as part of this five-day festival in Sitka. Other events include a parade and a period costume ball.
After the transfer, Alaska was eventually organized as a territory and maintained this status until it became a state on January 3, 1959 ( see also Appendix).
CONTACTS:
Anchorage Convention & Visitors Bureau
524 W. 4th Ave.
Anchorage, AZ 99501
800-478-1255 or 907-276-4118
www.travelalaska.com
Sitka Convention and Visitors Bureau
P.O. Box 1226
Sitka, AK 99835
907-747-5940; fax: 907-747-3739
www.sitka.org
SOURCES:
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 717
AnnivHol-2000, pp. 3, 174
DictDays-1988, p. 3
References in periodicals archive ?
The Alaska Day Festival takes place in honor of the purchase of Alaska by the United States from Russia in Sitka on October 18, 1867.
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Alaska Airlines on Wednesday said that it is inviting residents across the state to join it in celebrating Alaska Day on 18 October 2011.
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Their remarkably succinct words guided us in all of our efforts in serving you and putting you first, and we have done our best to fulfill promises that I made on Alaska Day, 2005, when I first asked for the honor of serving you.
Epitomizing the best in Alaska day cruising are excursions to Kenai Fjords and Prince William Sound.
Ulmer went on to sing in college musicals, performed in a USO tour to Greenland and Iceland, and after becoming an Alaskan, sang the National Anthem at the Kingdome to open Alaska Day at a Seattle Mariners game in 1994.
History buffs will be interested in Alaska Day events held in Sitka in October, which celebrates the purchase of Alaska from Russia.
Celebrate Alaska Day with films about the Last Frontier, hands-on science, art activities and a theatrical journey to Russian America.
Visitors can indulge in a variety of unique events and festivals, such as the Sitka Summer Music Festival, the Alaska Day Festival, the Whale Fest and a Jazz Festival.
The Southeast town's Alaska Day Festival features a 19th century costume ball complete with keystone cops and a ceremony commemorating the 1867 transfer of Alaska territory from Russia to the United States.

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