A (SOMEWHAT) SOCIALLY DISTANT SYTTENDE MAI IN SVALBARD: Traditional and virtual events bring people together while keeping them apart in first post-quarantine celebration


Ada Feiner-Endresen, 12, knows what it’s like to carry her class banner in Norway’s northernmost Syttende Mai parade, but this year’s experience is almost entirely without peer. As in the literal as well as historical sense, since all of her sixth-grade classmates except one carrying the other end of the banner were kept well away to ensure a proper “socially distant” celebration.


Svalbard Gov. Kjerstin Askholt places a wreath at the base of the miner’s statue in Longyearbyen’s town square just after noon on May 17. The location as starting place for the Syttende Mai parade was one of many notable changes from day’s traditional events. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Such a concept would surely be an oxymoronic head-scratcher any other year, but now it’s a global “new normal” that meant so much was familiar, yet so much was different, during Longyearbyen’s first major public gathering after a two-month lockdown and quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The biggest “rule” dictating the parade and other traditional events that typically involve several hundred people was a 50-person group limit. That meant limiting the “official” parade to just two representatives carrying banners for each school grade and community organizations, members of the Store Norske Big Band playing the traditional corps music, and a few dignitaries – although some of the most notable who normally lead the parade such as Svalbard’s governor were absent.

“It’s kind of weird because we have been so many every year and now it’s kind of empty,” said Feiner-Endresen, who carried the banner for her class last year as well.

Carrying the other end of the banner was Linnea Våtvik, 12, who said she and Feiner-Endresen were selected from the four students who volunteered. Instead of her classmates gathering behind her, they walked behind the main procession before finally grouping together in a specifically marked area at the parade’s end on the sports field at Svalbardhallen.


The “official” May 17 parade goes one way, the crowd behind another at the end of the traditional midday parade (along a very non-traditional route) through Longyearbyen. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

But while the official procession was within limits, it might take some creative accounting to explain how the gathering’s total size met the 50-person group requirements when they gathered at its start at the miner’s statue in the town center at noon (an hour later and a kilometer away from its traditional start at Svalbard Church). The total personage was reasonably similar to other years as Svalbard Gov. Kjerstin Askholt placed a wreath at the base of the statue after a short speech, after which the procession followed a first-ever one-way route through the side streets of Lia up to the sports center.

Missing from the speeches before or after the parade were representatives of Svalbard’s Russian communities, who typically trade words of unity and peace in addition to participating in wreath and flower layings. The gathering outside Svalbardhallen, instead of inside, was also markedly different, since instead of a feast of foods and sweets the refreshments were limited to ice cream and soda (again, with two people bringing them to their groups), and the range of games, music and other family activities were curtailed.

One notable addition, however, was the playing of Norway’s national anthem through speakers broadcasting the same song played throughout the country to commemorate something of a “reopening,” after the government announced this week domestic travel can resume June 1 and other restrictions continue to be lifted.

Longyearbyen’s celebration will end in traditional fashion, if not exactly feel, with a gala at Kulturhuset beginning at 7 p.m. – which the public will only be able to experience via Facebook or YouTube online video. Bjørn Erik Jorkjend, hired last fall as the new head technician for the center, said he’s taking on a formidable challenge for his first local Syttende Mai due to both its novelty and the logistics of getting necessary equipment from the mainland through the screening process.


Students gather by grades in separately marked areas on the sports field outside Svalbardhallen following the midday May 17 parade. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

“We just got our final camera on Friday,” he said.

A total of four cameras, along with a Go-Pro, will capture the roughly 30 people participating in the evening, including the 20 choir members. But Jorkjend said previous experience with proper placement and techniques aren’t necessarily applicable in this instance.

“Everybody’s so spread out, so the choir is kind of random,” he said.

The evening will also feature the traditional May 17 speeches by Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen and a Russian community representative, plus the awarding of the annual “citizens of the year” Tyfus Statuette and youth stipend.


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