NO MASKING THIS SUNNY SPIRIT: First rays of sun return to Longyearbyen in four months as hundreds gather for Solfestuka celebration w/ only tiny COVID-19 cloud to put folks in a ‘zone’

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On a day so “mild” – a mere minus 12C with little wind – face masks weren’t necessary for Mother Nature’s non-viral presence (or required by human authorities), hundreds of locals and visitors gathered for a remarkably bright and normal celebration at midday Monday welcoming the first return of sunlight in four months upon the world’s northernmost town.

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Joanna Eriksson, left, and Mikael Bergman, center, are honored for their drawings that are the official logos for this year’s Solfestuka festival during the return-of-the-sun celebration Monday. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

“The sun is back!” came the familiar proclamation at about 12:50 p.m. by the emcee standing at the top of the old wood stairs of what was the hospital in Longyearbyen before it, and most of the rest of the town, was destroyed during World War II.

Leading up to that moment was a minute or two of an equally familiar chant “Sol! Sol! Kom igjen! Sola er min beste venn.” (Which in English translates to “Sun! Sun! Come Again! The sun is our best friend” – which is decidedly lacking in the poetic rhyme and cadence of the Norwegian chant.)

Rousing cheers greeted the first solar rays and then the full appearance of the sun above the mountains at the south end of town, which has been hiding Earth’s life-giving star from nearly the entire settlement since the official first sunrise on Feb. 16. The last time sunlight shone on most of the town was a similar interval before the last official sunset before the polar night on Oct. 25 of last year.

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Angie Bardoquillo, a receptionist for Gjestehuset 102, captures the first rays of sunlight on the main part of town in more than four months at about 12:50 p.m. during Monday’s celebration. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

The celebration marked the one-year anniversary of the same gathering that was the last community event before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. While many of the hardships of that situation remain, there was little casting a shadow over the town’s most famous annual event as the size of the crowd, sun outfits and sun songs were all in full glow. The difference, only noticeable should one step into the wrong place, is groups of youths, adult residents and visitors were assigned to designated zones to control their proximity.

(Full disclosure: It must be noted that while Norway’s government allows up to three groups of 200 people to gather for outdoor public events if they’re separated – and this reporter was notified he couldn’t be in the kids’ area where he stepped in there to take some pictures – there was plenty of maskless interacting among those gathered at less than the one meter of required distance. Also, while face masks are strongly advised and generally worn by locals at common areas like the supermarket, they were largely absent during the celebration. It should also be noted Svalbard is one of the few places in the world with no officially diagnosed COVID-19 cases.)

The gathering is the featured event of the eight-day Solfestuka festival that begin Saturday. Other upcoming events will include stage shows, a polar dip/sauna gathering at the Svalbad bath house at the harbor, and a sledding and ski jumping contest at the ski hill on the festival’s final day.
Along with photos of the event is a video of the final sun song by the children’s group Polargospel after the sun’s return.

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Youths wearing traditional sun costumes sit close to the main podium during Monday’s celebration. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, attendees were placed into zones by age, and if they were residents or visitors. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

In addition the designated zones there were a couple of other firsts for the festival day.

Two winners instead of one were declared among the students at Longyearbyen School who drew pictures for the annual official logo contest. Joanna Eriksson, a seventh-grade student, drew the “main” logo of a mask-clad sun and Mikael Bergman, a sixth-grader, drew a polar bear against a sunrise for the secondary logo seen on the back of festival t-shirts and other merchandise.

The other unique presence saw Mirko Chiappini paragliding above the crowd right as they finished their chant and the sun appeared.

“I will do all it the time from now,” he vowed afterward. “I always wanted to do it. But it was wrong with the wind or I was busy with work.”

And this being Svalbard there were, of course, a few fun quirks – both of them happening on the day leading up to the celebration.

One was the observation of tracks – initially reported to be a polar bear – behind Svalbard Church, only a couple hundred meters from the old hospital’s wood steps. But a quick inspection by police and a helicopter from The Governor of Svalbard’s office revealed they were reindeer tracks.

The other is (shhhh) the sunlight didn’t actually return to the wood steps for the first time on Monday, everything written above not withstanding. Locals who visited the steps at about the same time on Sunday noted the to-be guest of honor already putting in an appearance.

“Sunday is sunday,” wrote Anna Lena Ekeblad, a longtime resident and tour company manager, in a Facebook post that afternoon. “What are you waiting for? She is here, one day ahead of schedule!…climbing over a glacier to shine on us here on the traditional ‘sunspot.’ Guess the glacier is ‘a day thinner’ than it used to be.”