SYTTENDE MAI IS NEARLY NORMAL THIS YEAR AND ‘WE ARE SO HAPPY’: Longyearbyen’s May 17 celebration has fewer Covid limits, but keeps last year’s ‘virtual’ gala show for world to see

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Screenshot from video of 2021 Syttende Mai gala by Longyearbyen Lokalstyre

The traditional parade through town won’t require masks (but they’ll be recommended and the “paraders” are still limited to students). Unlike last year the evening music/awards gala will allow an audience (but considerably smaller than normal) and one of last year’s best “adjustments” will continue by streaming the gala online live. And since the usual afternoon of indoor family activities isn’t yet possible, another addition this year will feature a first-ever church-directed performance appropriately titled “We Are So Happy.”

This is how the upcoming Syttende Mai (Norwegian Constitution Day) on Monday looks in the world’s northernmost town as Longyearbyen tries along with everyplace else to get somewhat back to normalcy more than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Members of Longyearbyen’s Thai community perform a traditional dance during the live streaming of the Syttende Mai gala in Longyearbyen in 2020. Because the event was “virtual” performances by local groups were recorded at scenic locations throughout the town. Screenshot from video by Longyearbyen Lokalstyre.

Also on a sunnier note, the weather forecast calls for near idyllic mid-May conditions with clear skies, a temperature of minus six degrees Celsius, and little or no wind.

Svalbard has somehow remained one of the few places in the world completely free of officially diagnosed COVID-19 cases and restrictions in place last year (and as recently as a few weeks ago) have been relaxed somewhat. But the city, which oversees the local celebration, is still taking numerous infection control measures and issuing strong advisories.

“The May 17 committee recommends that everyone attending the children’s procession and events maintain a distance in accordance with the infection control rules,” one of the advisories states. “Wear a face mask if necessary. In accordance with national guidelines, no one else can participate in the procession but everyone is encouraged to watch the the train along the route.”

Until last year the procession began at Svalbard Church and ended at a hilltop memorial at midday, where speeches and flowers would be laid by local Norwegian and Russian leaders. But as with last year the procession will start with a gathering and speeches at the miner’s statue in the town square, then proceed to Longyearbyen School. Historically families would gathering inside Svalbardhallen next to the school for food and activities, but since the size of such gatherings are still limited the youth activities will take place on the football pitch beginning at 1 p.m.

For those not participating in those, the “We Are So Happy” performance, described as a musical tribute to Syttende Mai, will also take place at 1 p.m. at Galleri Svalbard.

Syttende Mai is by tradition a day that salutes soldiers and emphasizes activities for children throughout Norway. But in Svalbard the day takes on extra element by featuring cooperative activities with the Russian settlements (in the spirt of being allies during World War II when Svalbard was occupied by Nazis), as well as gala performances by other elements of the community such as the sizeable Thai population.

The day also culminates locally at the gala with the awarding of the ironically named Tyfus Statuette given to a Longyearbyen resident whose positive presence has helped “keep the community out of typhus,” and a 10,000-kroner scholarship awarded to a youth for their cultural and other contributions.

It all starts with an early wakeup call in the form of the firing of a canon salute at 7 a.m., followed an hour later by the first of two processions through the streets of Longyearbyen. The first – and traditionally smaller – beginning at 8 a.m. will include three layings of flowers/wreaths at memorials, plus performances by a marching subsection of the Longyearbyen Big Band at a few locations along with march.

Nearly all businesses will be closed since it is a national holiday – as are May 13 and May 23 – but the Mix kiosk will be open from noon to 9 p.m. and Rabalder cafe will be open from 11 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Syttende Mai 2021 schedule

7 a.m.: Firing of the salute.

8 p.m.: Flag raising at Svalbard Church. Laying of flowers at the July 22 memorial outside church by Tobias Fjerdingøy and Tine Westby Thorstad. Procession to Huset beginning with laying of wreath at Skjæringa memorial by Per Nilssen. Longyearbyen Big Band marching section plays at Haugen, Vei 232 and Vei 238. Laiying of wreath at Huset by André Jenssen.

11:30 a.m.: Gathering at miner’s statue in town square.

Noon: Singing of national anthem led by Deputy Mayor Kjetil Figenschou. Greetings from the Consul General of Barentsburg Sergey Gushchin. Followed by procession to Longyearbyen School.

1 p.m.: Gathering on football pitch outside school with children’s events and toy distribution.

1 p.m.: Performance: “We Are So Happy” musical directed by Svalbard Church. Galleri Svalbard.

6 p.m.: Syttende Mai gala featuring music and dance by various local performers, speech for the day by Gov. Kjerstin Askholt, keynote speech by Frida Vestnes, Russian presentation, and the awarding of the Tyfus Statuette and youth scholarship. Kulturhuset. Maximum of 75 allowed at theater, event will be streamed live online.