The world’s northernmost Syttende Mai
Norway’s constitution gets a very special international celebration in Longyearbyen
Syttende Mai is special to all Norwegians and those of Norwegian descent, no matter where they live. But in Norway’s most northern outpost, Longyearbyen, it’s not just special—it’s unique. The history of Syttende Mai in Longyearbyen begins in 1920, after Store Norske purchased this arctic town from the American company, Arctic Coal Company. Store Norske noted the first celebrations, which reflect the bleak arctic life of the times:
1918: Ordinary work day. Special dinner.
1920: Ordinary work day. Men given fruit and beer with lunch.
1922: Ordinary work day. Salute and flag hoisted. Wind blew flag away.
1924: Ordinary work day. Men given beer with lunch.
During the 1940s, living conditions changed. Administrators and miners were allowed to bring their families to live with them in Svalbard. The first parade in Longyearbyen was in 1945. Miners were given the day off, and people marched through the town playing instruments, waving flags, and singing. The parade finished at the governor’s house where he gave a speech, then handed out waffles to the children. Longyearbyen was still a rough town. There was no grocery store, no shops, no restaurants. The streets weren’t paved, and some years they were so muddy tractors decked with flags pulled trailers carrying the women and children along the parade route.
Starting in the 1990s, people moved to Longyearbyen to take advantage of the Svalbard Accord, and these were not Norwegians, but citizens of the signatory countries with the right to live and work in Svalbard. Part of what makes Longyearbyen so unusual is that in addition to its Norwegian citizens, people from 54 different countries are also residents. In the town’s parade, not only do proud Norwegians march in their bunads, but they are joined by families from Thailand, the Philippines, Peru, Czech Republic, Estonia, France. All of them celebrating Norway’s Constitution Day. In Svalbard, Russia celebrates with Norway.
While Longyearbyen is the world’s northernmost city, it isn’t the only town on Svalbard. From almost the beginning of Svalbard’s industrial history, Russians have worked beside their Norwegian neighbors, mining coal in the Russian towns of Grumant, Pyramiden, and Barentsburg. Of these three, only Barentsburg, like Longyearbyen, still has a functioning coal mine. The harsh conditions of Svalbard, and the memory of shared hardships during WWII when Longyearbyen, Grumant, and Barentsburg were bombed by Nazi forces, created a bond between the Russian and Norwegian people in this special place.
This is reflected in the Syttende Mai celebrations, as the people of Longyearbyen invite representatives of the Russian consulate, representatives of Arktikugol, the Russian mining company in Barentsburg, and a group of Russian children and their families to join the celebrations. Together, Russians and Norwegians lay wreaths at the monuments to those who gave their lives in WWII, and to those who have died in Svalbard’s mines. After the parade, while the adults gather for a festive lunch, the Russian children join their Norwegian counterparts in Svalbardhallen where they play games, eat cake, and enjoy a special celebration for all the children.
What else makes Longyearbyen unique?
It’s not easy living in the high arctic. For months, there’s no sunlight, and temperatures are -22F and lower. Katabatic winds howl off the glaciers at hurricane speeds. Polar bears haunt the edges of town. Early in Longyearbyen’s history, Norwegian humor was used to combat the difficulties of living in Svalbard. People blamed all bad things on the disease “typhus.” Stub your toe? You must have typhus. Sour beer? It must be typhus. Was someone rude? Typhus again. Every annoyance, every bad thing, was blamed on typhus.
In 1974, the social group Polarleik designed an award for the person who had contributed most to battling “typhus.” While some of the criteria for winning the Typhus Award have changed over time, the important qualities are still that the recipient be good humored and positive and has worked to make life in Longyearbyen better for the people who live here. The award, a statue of a larger-than-life fist clutching a lump of coal, has been given to individuals, married couples, and social groups for their efforts in improving arctic life, and it’s presented at the end of the Syttende Mai talent show.
Also presented on that day is a NOK 10,000 scholarship given by the lokalstyre to one of the town’s students. This year’s award winner, Trym, is particularly outstanding. Because Trym has Down syndrome, he has not been able to participate in the Longyearbyen school system. However, that did not stop Trym. He has a passion for excellence that led him to train for almost every sport offered by Svalbard Turn, the local sports club. Trym particularly excels in swimming, and after swimming in the Norwegian Special Olympics, he went on to swim in the international Special Olympics held in Dubai in 2018. His good nature and courage have brought him attention from around the world. He has been received by the Norwegian royal family, and the American ambassador made a special trip to Longyearbyen to meet Trym and give him a medal recognizing his outstanding qualities.
Syttende Mai is a long day in Longyearbyen. It begins at 7 a.m. with a band playing a salute as the flag is raised, and public celebrations end at 9 p.m. with the end of the talent show, awards, and closing ceremonies at Kulturhuset. Of course, private celebrating continues that night and beyond. Through the long weekend, men and women wear their bunads as they walk through town to parties and other social events. In Longyearbyen, it’s not possible to have fireworks for the holiday. Instead people go out to Svalbard’s rocky beaches and ski into the mountains to enjoy the brightest light show of all, the midnight sun.
Elizabeth Philotera Bourne is an artist, photographer, and writer. Her work has been shown nationally in the United States and in Norway. Bourne’s short stories have been published in several genre magazines. She currently lives in Longyearbyen, Norway, where she is learning to snakke norsk, and where there are no trolls because the polar bears ate them. You can find her at www.philotera.com and on Instagram as @philotera.
This article originally appeared in the June 14, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.