The year 2016 will be remembered as the perfect time to be bissextile.
Several hundred people experienced one of Longyearbyen’s most spectacular “return of the sun” celebrations ever, thanks to leap year delaying the ceremony from a cloudy Monday to a cloudless Tuesday. Wearing sun costumes, facepaint and other solar insignia, they began their annual chant toward the southern horizon at 12:50 p.m. while circled around an ancient set of wooden steps that have not seen sunlight in four months.
“Sun, sun, come again! The sun is my best friend.” (The cadence flows more poetically in Norwegian.)
For maybe 30 or so seconds, the gods of darkness resisted. But they were overpowered by the increasingly vigorous shouts and a perfectly clear sliver of an dazzling ellipse peered over the glacial mountainside. That lit up the crowd even more, forcing the rest of the sun to spill into the sky with haste and turn the chants to cheers.
Freia Hutzschenreuter, 77, participating in her 46th “solas tilbakekomst” day, said there have been clear skies like today “I think twice. It might be three or four times, but not more than that.”
It’s been at least a decade since the sun was clearly visible during the ceremony that’s the highpoint of the nine-day Solfestuka festival that began Friday, declared by Longyearbyen residents in an online poll to be their favorite annual cultural event.
“There are lots of days that are cold, windy, snowy and foggy,” Hutzschenreuter said.
As always, local youths dominated the ceremony that began at 12:30 p.m. with songs, sing-alongs and more chants for Astrid Andersen, 6, who was selected from about 85 students as the winner of this year’s Solfestuka logo contest.
The ceremony takes place around the wooden steps of a hospital next to Svalbard Church that was destroyed during World War II. Although the first official sunrise in Longyearbyen was Feb. 16, the surrounding mountains deny sunlight to most of the town for a few more weeks – and the old steps are where the first “in-town” rays appear.
Longyearbyen had nine hours and 32 minutes of official daylight (plus more than four hours of visible twilight) even though it first “saw” the sun Tuesday. But the length of days will continue growing rapidly, with the town entering 24-hour visible twilight April 5 and beginning its’ three-and-a-half months of 24-daylight April 19.
This year’s Solfestuka began with a revue show Friday and Saturday nights mostly satirizing events of the past year, although tragedies such as the Dec. 19 avalanche that killed two people were handled much more tactfully.
On Sunday about 20 people gathered for an outdoor Mass on a high ridge on Hiorthfjellet across the bay from Longyearbyen. Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen, in his liturgy, said that while Longyearbyen residents go all-out to celebrate the return of sunlight “we do not worship the sun.”
“The sun is not our religion,” he said. We honor God with this festival. The light is back.”