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Sunny days in Svalbard again

The day, truth be told, wasn't all that different.

The skies were overcast and Longyearbyen was already getting more than 12 hours a day of "twilight," exceeding the sunrise/sunset duration in New York City. Even during a mass gathering at the penultimate moment of the first dawn after a four-month polar night, a scattering of people said they didn't feel a magic transformation.

"Maybe if the sun had come out," said Kate Johansen, hoisting her daughter, Benedicte, 3, one of the dozens of children wearing a plush circle of cloth sun rays around her neck.

But there's little doubt the crowd was in a celebratory mood that lasted throughout a week as a record attendance of more than 4,000 was tallied at concerts, theater performances, presentations, sledge races and other activities during the annual Solfestuka festival. Be it the dark, cold, desolation or other demons of winter, most people said there's something to look forward to the end of as summer approaches.

"There's a lot of wind in the winter," said Hanna Hays, 11, who performed a Thai dance with three friends during the festival's annual youth talent show.

It took a few days for the skies to clear and the sun to actually shine on Longyearbyen (just after 1 p.m. on March 13 is when the first rays hit the walkway in the town center). But by the end of the week dawn was approaching before 5 a.m. and the last dusk vanishing after 8 p.m. as the light returns faster than nearly anywhere else on Earth. Constant daylight will return well before the "midnight sun" rises from April 19 to Aug. 24.

The darkness can cause depression, sleep deprivation and other symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, although not to the extent a full-time psychologist is in Longyearbyen for assistance. Some local residents, speaking informally, said there may be a lower ratio of cases in Svalbard because virtually everyone is busy with occupations or studies that are generally the only way to obtain permanent housing.

Anne Lise Klungseth Sandvik, production director of a variety stage show for Solfestuka, said idleness can be a problem for non-working spouses and, having a disability herself after breaking her hand, self-motivation is critical. "I think if I did not have all those cultural things to do I would be very lonesome," she said.

Solfestuka has celebrated the return of the sun since Longyearbyen's existence. Sunrise in the world's northernmost town with a population exceeding 1,000 also generally gets brief mention in newspapers worldwide. A day of festival activities was extended to the current weeklong lineup about 25 years ago.

This year's ceremonies started with a packed-beyond-capacity sunrise service at the Svalbard church (albeit at the normal 11 a.m. time), after which congregants and several hundred others gathered outside around the step of a hospital built in 1913. The hospital was burned by Russia during World War II, with the step being the only part of the structure to survive, and it has become the traditional gathering point where the first rays of sun – at least symbolically – return to Longyearbyen.

Locals took advantage of the week to spend ample time outdoors in other activities – fair weather or not – including most of the town's kindergarten-age children spending a morning sledding on a hill near The University Centre in Svalbard. The culmination saw hundreds make the trip by snowmobile to Hiorthhamn fjord for the annual sledding races, this year featuring about 20 entrants competing (to use the word loosely in some instances) for honors in speed and ornamentation.

Concerts by renowned bands from Norway, plus an opening night performance by the U.S. band Chatham County Line in a joint appearance with Norwegian singer Jonas Fjeld, took place most nights. The local rock band Schmeerenburgh used a Friday night concert to introduce their debut recording, a five-song EP titled "Longyear Brenner" (English translation: "Longyear is burning") that is described as "a twisted take on Svalbard's arctic pulse."

The most indoor enthusiasm may have been during a pair of amateur collaborations, beginning with the youth talent show at the Radisson SAS Polar Hotel. More than 200 parents and other observers, including a three-judge panel at a table, packed sardine-tight into a conference room to watch a dozen or so performances in front of star-studded curtains.

The final two nights of the festival featured the Spitsbergen Revylag production "Og Bakom Synger Kullstrupene" (rough English translation: "and behind sing coal throat," for whatever that's worth) in the Huset theater. The show, part of Solfestuka since 1995, puts local events from the past year to ironic and/or humorous song and dance. Sandvik said this year's numbers included her son, Haakon, as part of the cast of "Same Old Shit," lampooning bureaucrats fixated on a new cultural center despite some wishing otherwise.

"We in the group wanted to fix up Huset instead of building something smaller," she said. "There's tradition, you know."

About 15 people work on material for the show for several months, Sandvik said. Among the more somber compositions this year was her "Solidarity," observing that while people meet and light candles to show support of victims in tragedies like intense bombings on Gaza in 2008, the gatherings fail to provide actual help to those in need.

The festival concluded with late-night concerts by a trio of bands of two floors at Huset. But while it may have left most of the locals charged up about the long days ahead, for some the most sleepless nights apparently are still to come.

"Personally I feel more uncomfortable when the light is coming back," said Arne Kooij, a doctor who has lived in Longyearbyen for eight years.

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