Christmas at (or near) the North Pole
In the dark of polar night, Longyearbyen celebrates the season of light in its own ways
Everyone knows Santa Claus delivers toys to good children and lumps of coal to bad children. But did you ever wonder where the coal comes from? The popular idea of Santa and his elves shows them in a snowy winter wonderland at the North Pole, but let’s face facts. The North Pole in winter is terrible. Cold, windy, barren, and full of polar bears with a taste for elf.
This is no place for a workshop. But a mine is perfect. The temperature is constant. You’re protected from the elements. With good lighting, it’s bright as daylight. Local reindeer for the sleigh abound, and there’s plenty of coal both for heat and the stockings of naughty children. The best mine for this purpose is Longyearbyen’s historic Mine #2 in Nybyen, a short walk from Longyearbyen proper.
Every year in December, Mine #2 is lit up to show that Santa is in residence, and a mailbox is erected on the road at the bottom of the path leading to the mine. Then, after church on the first Sunday of Advent, families and children march up the street carrying Advent candles so that the children can mail their first letters to Santa Claus.
At this time of year, Longyearbyen is dark 24 hours a day. It’s cold, and can be windy, so the red candles are more like torches to stay lit against the wind. To make the procession more beautiful, the city turns off the streetlights along the road. I was fortunate to witness this as I returned to Svalbard, and it is a lovely sight. Winter is no barrier to being outside here. Everyone dresses for the weather. Some families make the procession on skis, others pull their children on sleds, with dogs frolicking beside them.
After the letters have been dropped off, the crowd heads back to the town’s central square, where a local band and choir play Christmas carols to start the season off right. The main street is beautifully decorated, and a big Christmas tree imported from Norway waits in the square to be admired.
But Christmas in Longyearbyen hasn’t always been like this. I spoke with Stein Henningsen, internationally known performance artist and curator of Arctic Action in Longyearbyen, a showcase for innovative live art performances. Henningsen grew up in Longyearbyen when it was a mining town of less than 1,000 people and was managed by SNSK, Store Norsk Spitzbergen Kulkompani. He told me that a local who owned horses playing Santa delivered presents to the few children of Longyearbyen by sleigh, but that later, with the arrival of snowmobiles, Santa upgraded his technology to snowmobile and roared around town belching black smoke along with Christmas cheer and gifts.
Back then, there was no airport, and the last ship delivered supplies at the end of October. Longyearbyen’s people wouldn’t see another vessel until April when the passage was clear. Along with all of life’s necessities to keep them alive over the winter, the October boat also delivered Christmas trees.
Henningsen remembers them. “They came flat-packed, as if they were furniture from IKEA. All the branches had been removed, and holes drilled into the trunks for reassembly. You didn’t get to choose a tree. The company assigned each family a tree, and that was the one you got. Because they arrived months before Christmas, they were kept outside to stay frozen. Of course, once you brought them in and they warmed up, they didn’t last long. The needles started dropping right away.”
When I asked Henningsen about his favorite Christmas memory, his face lit up. “The food! After Christmas, food was boring, and it had to last until spring. So I looked forward to the eating. Ribbe with crackling skin, melt in your mouth pinnekjøtt, and lutefisk. I know people make fun of lutefisk, but if it’s made right, it’s a fantastic dish.” When, as a non-Norwegian, I expressed my doubts, he waved them away. “People always talk bad about lutefisk, that’s because they haven’t had the good stuff. You need to try it, then tell me if you like it.”
So maybe this Christmas when I am back in Seattle, I will look for some homemade lutefisk to try.
Elizabeth Philotera Bourne is an artist, photographer, and writer. Her photography has been shown nationally, and her short stories have been published in the genre magazines Fantasy and Science Fiction and Clarkesworld. She currently lives in Seattle, where trolls really do live under bridges—or at least she lives there when she’s not wandering across the Arctic. You can find her at www.philotera.com and on Instagram as @philotera.
This article originally appeared in the December 14, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.