Secret Santas: Staff at crucial agencies work largely out of sight keeping Longyearbyen cozy and safe during Christmas


To say Santa and his elf had a very steamy Christmas might get some people heated up – certainly the folks in several homes at Blåmyra are feeling that way this Christmas due to the December duo.

Steingrim Hindseth (the self-proclaimed Santa) and Kai Ketil Sand‎ (elf) were roused from their peaceful Christmas Eve activities at mid-morning due to a leaky water pipe outside the buildings that took about four hours to replace.

“I was in bed,” Hindseth said.

“I was making the pinekjøtt and the stew,” Sand said. “I had to turn off the stove and everything, so I don’t know if it will be ready for the Christmas party.”

The weather – minus six degrees Celsius and mild winds – certainly could have been worse. But it made for uneven mixture of cold, hot, wet and dry as Sand first had to cut partially through the pipe and let the 85-degree water drain.

“It’s hot,” he said, as water started spurting out at high pressure, raising huge clouds of steam around him.

Santa and his elf waited a few minutes for the water to drain, joking about using their engineering skills to calculate the time it would take, after which Sand finished cutting through the pipe. Hindseth then welded a new section in – with both men taking pictures of each other at work and posting updates for affected residents on a local Facebook page.

The work meant shutting off the hot water and central heating to the homes where the pipe flowed, but they got plenty of thanks from locals for ensuring the tenant could enjoy a warm holiday evening.

The plumbers were among those working largely out of sight throughout the day and night to do their best to keep Longyearbyen residents cozy and safe during Christmas. While some working had to adjust their holiday plans or interrupt the ones they made, none of those interviewed were grumbling about having to work during the holidays.


Bente Hanssen, a nurse at Longyearbyen Hospital, shows the decorated dining room where staff gathered for a Christmas Eve meal. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

“I was off this year and this year it’s OK because I’ve been doing this for so long,” said Bente Hanssen, a nurse who has worked at Longyearbyen Hospital for “only 16 or 17 years” of a health care career that has been much longer.

As with many working during the holidays, a predetermined schedule meant Hanssen knew long in advance she would be working an 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. shift on Christmas Eve. She was the lone person working at the hospital during what proved to be a quiet day – there were no emergency calls as of late afternoon that would meant calling in co-workers – and two patients at the hospital had been discharged the day before. She said significant incidents are rare.

“The last time I was on-duty during the holidays it was one of the cooks who had cut himself,” he said. “That was easy.”

The avalanche on Dec. 19, 2015, that buried and injured numerous people, killing two of them was a reminder things can go from quiet to overwhelming instantly, Hanssen said. But by Christmas Eve that year all of those injured were no longer being treated at the hospital.

But despite this year’s calm Hanssen wasn’t alone, nor were holiday festivities missing.

Her grown son Christoffer and his step-sister Desire Hunt were visiting her in the lounge (a tradition when Bente is working during the holidays, according to her son) where a TV tuned to holiday shows was on. In the adjacent kitchen four pots of traditional Norwegian Christmas dishes were simmering on the stove and a large serving pan of cooked juleribbe – all prepared by the nurse – were awaiting the arrival of about ten other hospital employees scheduled to show up for a workplace dinner at about 6 p.m.

“I did some of the cooking,” she said modestly, while showing the dining room where she also laid out the formal and decorative place settings. Other staff, she said, were bringing in other dishes to cover the variety of holiday food preferences.


Merwyn Tomsen keeps an eye on the control instruments (and Disney cartoons) on Christmas Eve at Longyearbyen’s power plant. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople

The settings for another communal dinner for about 10 people were being laid out at roughly the same time at Longyearbyen’s power plant, where two employees at a time were working 12-hour shifts. Merwyn Thomsen kept a watch on the multitude of gauges and screens (and the Scandinavian tradition of Disney cartoons on a TV screen) in the control room from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Christmas Eve, while Odd-Inge Bekkevold walked around the plant keeping an eye on equipment.

“My job is to fix problems,”Bekkevold said, although additional employees would be called in if an outage or other problem was too large for one person to handle.

This year there were two additional workers at the plant on Christmas Eve because one of the two turbines at the plant had to be shut down due to technical problems and experts from Germany had to be brought in for repairs.

“They have to finish it as quickly as possible,” Thomsen said.

Thomsen said his wife and three children stayed in the Faroe Islands where he moved here about five years ago, so he doesn’t mind working the holiday since he will visit them in January.

“This year I have to work all of Christmas and all of New Year’s,” he said.

Besides those at work due to predetermined shifts, there were those that just couldn’t help themselves.

“I just came in to look at some e-mails and do some other things,” said Svalbard Gov. Kjerstin Askholt, coming out of the otherwise dark and empty administrative building at about 5 p.m. Christmas Eve. “But I’m going home now.”