LONG YEAR = SHORT CELEBRATION: Whiteout blizzard means quick – but glowing – return-of-the-sun ceremony on leap year

(Editor’s note: This was the worst weather I’ve experienced in my 12 years covering Solfestuka’s main event and, since there was no way in hell I was going to interview folks while somehow taking the photos that are obviously What Really Matters, here’s a rare first-person diatribe on what certainly was an illuminating occasion.)

I opened the door to my flat at about noon, and instantly was literally knocked astride by a white wall of blowing snow that made it impossible to see my car two meters away – let alone my intended destination on a small hill perhaps 500 meters away.

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A couple hundred Longyearbyen residents and visitors – not too far from the usual number – brave a blizzard to gather around the steps of the old hospital for the return-of-the-sun ceremony Sunday. Normally there’d be far more yellow and sun-themed logos/costumes visible, but reason prevailed over enlightenment this year. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

A day earlier at the same time there was no wind and mild conditions for Longyearbyen during March – in short, the kind of idyllic day that makes life here priceless for residents and worth paying a heavy price for visitors at peak season. But because this is leap year and because it’s tradition the ceremony celebrating the return of the sun to the main part of town after the four-month polar night occurs March 8, clearly it meant things were about to be extra-invigorating this year.

Alas, driving the unseen car wasn’t an option due to battery issues, which meant calling a taxi (and, oh, the not-sunny thoughts of paying the inflated weekend rates). While it took closer to 15 minutes than the promised four to show up, I wasn’t exactly regretful since the longer it took to it arrived at the ceremony to the 12:30 p.m. start meant the shorter I’d be standing out there waiting.

An indication things might be going seriously off the rails occurred when I took three steps outside the front door, fell into a fresh deep snow drift and couldn’t get up. Had I been trying to reach my car instead of a taxi with a driver who saw me suddenly vanish from view I suppose it’s possible I’d have just lain there under the rapid accumulation until the sun chose to put in a long enough appearance to expose me (as a fraud as well as corpse, presumably).

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The editor of Svalbardposten takes a picture of me taking a picture of her as emcee Jovna Zakharias Dunfjell cheers on the crowd. Luckily, I managed to keep my pants on. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Instead, he basically dragged me into the front seat and then – thank God (or Mother Nature, or whatever) – detoured to another home to pick up a couple more people going to the ceremony, which meant splitting a fare I’d only willingly pay for a medical emergency or…well, this. We got there at 12:28 p.m. and he dropped us off at the church, maybe 50 meters from the wood steps of the old hospital where the ceremony occurs. Even getting that far against the wind was a fiendish struggle for my already physically and emotionally shook physique.

By the time I did, the strange thing (and kind of scary, since my camera wasn’t yet accessible/ready) was the chant of “Sun! Sun! Come again!” (in Norwegian, of course – and there’s a second verse and the whole thing is more poetic) was already underway. So I ripped my gloves off and awkwardly took a few clumsy shots, harkening back to many other haphazard moments in a long journalism career where getting some image – any image – of something that may unexpectedly no longer be there.

But at least my camera was now exposed. And so were certain parts of me, which didn’t bode entirely well for what turned out to be a blissfully abbreviated celebration.

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Lots of local and visiting journalists capture the return-of-the-sun ceremony each year because, among other things, they don’t have the option of taking refuge in their rooms no matter how crummy conditions get. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

In addition to hands that were without gloves more often than not, somehow I pulled the drawstring of my wind pants loose while also loosening the button on the pants underneath. Granted, having your pants fall around your ankles is less embarrassing if blowing snow is serving as a veil from most of the people around you, but it’s not exactly dignified trying to juggle tugging them up, navigating slippery hillside terrain and taking pictures nobody was going to remember if shots of me in Full Monty started circulating on social media instead.

Normally the Solfestuka ceremony features songs by the Polargospel children’s choir (including songs such as…wait for it – “Here Comes The Sun”), a tale/speech about the sun’s return, an award presentation to the youth drawing the winning logo for the festival (Angela Santos Fruza, 12, see image below), and a couple other things. But this year it was pretty much just the emcee Jovna Zakharias Dunfjell standing by himself on the steps offering a few sunny words and leading the chant every few minutes, aided of course by the people working the generators, sound equipment and other stuff vital for even a bare-bones ceremony.

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A parent takes pictures of her very-well covered kids while a very well-covered infant hopefully rests warmly nearby during the ceremony. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

One of the notable aspects of the celebration is lots of youths (and plenty of young-at-heart) in colorful sun-themed clothing, costume accessories and face paint, and a cluster of media from Norway and often elsewhere capturing it all in still and video images. All that happened, of course, but the colors were muted by an abundance of practical-minded outerwear and the white dusting/veil of snow upon those sitting/standing in place around the steps.

Yet, somehow, Mother Nature won the day and, dare I say, did so mercifully considering the setting she provided in the first place.

At about 12:40 p.m. (the days in Longyearbyen are getting longer each day at a bonkers pace, so adding about 10 minutes to the both the sunrise/sunset times is roughly par) the chants began with vigor for what turned out to be the final time as the sun appeared remarkably clearly on the southern horizon. With that Dunfjell wished the revellers a cheery, if hasty farewell, and the crowd quickly fled on foot and in vehicles in search of shelter – although a hefty portion of them stopped first by the van about 50 meters away where free solboller (“sun buns”) were being handed out as another traditional part of the festival.

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Much of the Solfestuka crowd flocks to a van offering free solboller after the ceremony because, of course, food is essential for warmth in harsh Arctic conditions. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Meanwhile, I retreated with my frozen fingers and perilous pants to the nearby church where I pulled myself together, so to speak, and then ventured outside hoping to hitchhike that utterly impossible (for me) 500 meters back the center of town so I could, among other things, report the story I hadn’t done any actual reporting on.

And lo, by wonderful fortune, the same taxi driver happened to reappear on the hunch some poor soul might be looking for a ride. Adding to that warm feeling, a German tourist happened to flag him down at about the same time, making for another split fare.

As we pulled away at almost exactly the “normal” return-of-the-sun time at 12:50 p.m., the guest of honor was now shinning quite bright, with a clear gap between it and the horizon.

The guest, in the midst of a three-week stay during his third trip to Svalbard, said he meant to attend the full ceremony, but arrived a bit later than planned (go figure). But he still offered glowing thoughts of what he called a gather that can’t be experienced anywhere else in the world, and the cabbie cheerily reminded him he’ll be able to provide a unique tale about this most unique of days in Svalbard.

This year’s winning Solfestuka logo, drawn by Angela Santos Fruza, 12.

“You’ll be able to say it was very memorable,” he said.