“When the sun reaches the steps of the old hospital, then the long winter will be over.” Sounds like a prophecy from a Game of Thrones episode, right? Well, for the people who live in Longyearbyen, humanity’s northernmost settlement in the Svalbard archipelago, it’s a legit way of confirming the sun is back after a very long season of polar nights. When the sun does indeed return, it’s time for Solfestuka, a week-long celebration.
Living in Svalbard is not easy. Every year, around October 6, the sun goes away for 153 days. During the famous polar nights, the people living in the Longyearbyen settlement have no way of telling the difference between day and night: the sun is at least six degrees below the horizon, sinking the settlement into total darkness 24/7. The only natural light sources for Svalbardians during that time are the moon, the stars and, thankfully, the Northern Lights. Understandably, the day the sun finally returns is a very big deal for everyone.
This day, called Soldagen (Sun Day), is officially March 8. Celebrated in Longyearbyen since the settlement’s early years back in the 1900s, Soldagen is traditionally marked by the rays of the sun reaching the Sykerhustrappa, the stairs of the old hospital near the church. Although the hospital doesn’t exist anymore, nowadays a new set of stairs has been built at the same spot and functions as a makeshift (but definitive) sun dial. However, when there’s a leap year, the sun reaches the steps one day early! For this reason—and mostly because everyone enjoys it so much and travelers have started visiting during that time—the community in Longyearbyen extended its celebrations to last a whole week. Now, the 10th week of the year in Svalbard is known as Solfestuka.
Of course, each year is different: there have been years when the sun has barely come out. Other years, polar bears have tried to join the celebration (unfortunately they had to be scared away). The festivities also change every year. Since the whole community participates, but also many guest artists have started getting involved, you can expect anything from ice sculpture workshops and lectures, to snowmobile competitions and live music (Svalbard has a very important musical presence, especially in the jazz scene), even themed parties where people wear beach attire and sunglasses!
Of course, some traditions remain the same. To “bring out the sun,” a choir of Longyearbyen children gathers at the sight of the steps and sings carols (as well as “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles). They’re dressed like little suns, with orange scarfs made to look like the sun rays, and many also draw little suns on their cheeks. Afterwards, the children usually get solboller; a round pastry with yellow custard cream inside that also represents the sun.
Since this is first and foremost a community celebration, there’s always plenty of food, drink and music throughout the week. Everyone contributes, from the local bakery to the art gallery—although the best contribution of all is the children’s smiles as bright as the sun.