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Sweets, salutes and song
Victory before a global crowd gives Norwegians extra reason for pride on Constitution Day
Hundreds of Svalbard residents and visitors march through the streets of Longyearbyen in the traditional Norwegian Constitution Day children's parade on May 17. The short average residency here means many don't have the ties to family and the community they do on the mainland, giving some an extra incentive to be involved in the national holiday festivities.

Important as honoring soldiers and children on the national holiday may be, the highlight for some Norwegians this year was a young violinist's "Fairytale."

Alexander Rybak, 23, smashed the record for the most points ever to win the 54th annual Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday night before more than 100 million television viewers worldwide, including nearly half of Norway's 4.8 million people. So Longyearbyen residents were singing his winning song the next morning while parading through the streets in a traditional human train as part of Norwegian Constitution Day.

"The highlight?" said one man when asked about the best part of the holiday. "That happened last night."

The victory means a yet-to-be determined Norwegian city will host the contest about this time next year. The early betting odds don't favor Longyearbyen, which at 1,000-1 is tied for last with Rybaks' hometown of Nesodden. However, Tromsø's 5-1 odds does give Arctic Norway one of the strongest contenders.

Longyearbyen's presented its own cultural awards – including a prestigious "all things bad" statuette to a person making things less bad – during an evening variety show as part of the town's Constitution Day events. Other activities included memorial tributes, and an afternoon of children indulging in games, sweets and stage performances.

Norway's national holiday emphasizes kids, in contrast to many countries that place the dominant focus on the military. Henrik Wergeland, a 19th century poet, is credited for placing the focus on youths being the country's future and source of patriotic pride.

Tove Seljevold, who moved to Longyearbyen a few months ago and performed a solo folk song at evening show, said she generally hasn't participated in many festivities on the mainland since her son grew up. But in Svalbard, where most residents are short-term and often away from loved ones, familiar rituals take on a somewhat different character.

"Here it feels like it's more important to share the day with others," she said.

Bjørn Arnestad, director of Store Norske, lays a wreath paying tribute to fallen soldiers at the Skjæringa memorial.

Those staying up late to celebrate after the Eurovision contest may have been on short sleep rations when the Constitution Day activities began at 7 a.m. with the traditional firing of a salute. The laying of a memorial wreath at Huset, closing of the flowers at the mining monument in the town square and a holiday liturgy at Svalbard Church followed before most of the town gathered at a memorial outside the church.

"Now we do ice cream," one woman explained to a couple of church visitors as they walked outside.

"Where?" one of them asked.

"Everywhere," she replied.

Everyone got a little exercise first during the tog parade through the streets, with political and military leaders pacing the marching band and students in each grade carrying decorated banners – along with most other locals marching rather than watching. The procession ended at the Skjæringa memorial, where a wreath and flowers were laid by Bjørn Arnestad, director of the coal company Store Norske, and Vjatseslav Nikolajev, the Russian general consul in Barentsburg.

While the memorial pays tribute to fallen soldiers, Arnestad talked about a recent visit by Gunnar Sønsteby, Norway's most decorated living veteran, and the importance of his lessons since World War II is "distant and unreal" for most people today.

"In a time when wealth, beauty and success are often represented as the most important thing in life, it is perhaps even more important to listen to people like Gunnar Sønsteby when he talks about values as equality, community and tolerance, and that our freedom is hard won and valuable," Arnestad said.

A girl tries carrying a potato on a spoon while navigating an obstacle course at Svalbardhallen.

Another procession by bus, car and on foot brought revelers to the children's activities at Svalbardhallen. There wasn't much ice cream to start, but kids had ample opportunity to get wired on numerous cakes and soda accompanying the hot dogs and smørbrød at the buffet tables. They could burn the sugar off at the other end of the hall sack racing, tossing beanbags and trying to carry objects on spoons across teeter-totters. The ice cream carts arrived an hour or so later, about the time many youths starting singing and performing circus acts on a temporary stage.

Taking it in from the upper bleachers was photographer Eva Grøndal and her daughter, Mikaela Olsen, 15. While many Norwegians wear regional bunad outfits, traditionally made by grandmothers when granddaughters are confirmed at age 15, Olsen's patriotic getup of choice included a floppy plush Norwegian flag cap and a helium balloon.

Their favorite thing about Constitution Day in Longyearbyen?

"Walking in the parade," Grøndal said.

"It's too cold in the parade," her daughter countered. "The best thing is the balloons."

Those looking for a more adult-oriented diversion attended the late-afternoon opening of Rudolf Jon Overå's "Energier" exhibit at Galleri Svalbard, his fifth show at the gallery, featuring prints and watercolors inspired by mining in Svalbard. He also displayed five polar bear images in a permanent wall space that were described as "motifs symbolizing polar bears alone and searching – often in the polar night, beating the Arctic light. They can be compared with the artist searching for motive and renewal, often lonely working with light as a source of inspiration."

The art shifted from still to performance during the two-hour show at Huset, including traditional and modern music, a Cirque-type acrobatic act by Marianne Bøe and Ida Sigernes, and discussions including a review of the past year by departing Svalbard Governor Per Selfand. Two cultural awards were also presented. The first was an annual 10,000 NOK student scholarship won this year by Ivan Marchenko for his prolific and acclaimed works as a guitarist.

Marianne Bøe and Ida Sigernes, at left, perform a "Sirkus Svalnardo" act as part of an evening variety show at Huset.

The second award was the Tyfus Statuette, literally meaning "typhoid statuette." Tyfus is also "an old Svalbard term for everything that is bad," according to a narrative describing the award, and since 1974 "has been given to someone who has done something positive for society and worked to get it out of typhus." This year's winner was Helle Jakobsen, head of Svalbard Turn, which organizes events such as the Svalbard Skimarathon and Spitsbergen Marathon. She has been a trainer for the past five years at Svalbard Turn, with her work with children ages 5 to 18 cited during the ceremony.

"From parents we hear that the kids come home with red cheeks, radiant eyes and are loath to miss a practice," said Heinrich Eggenfellner, a local cultural board official, presenting the award.

Holiday festivities concluded with a communal meal of rømmegrøt (sour cream porridge) and spekemat (smoked meats) at Svalbard Church, although attendance was comparatively light due to the lateness of the evening. It's also possible people were full from too many pølse (hot dogs), even if they're not the most Norwegian of foods to be tradition on a holiday.

Like everything else, "it's for the children," Seljevold said.


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