BARENTSBURG, Norway (AP) — A 15-year-old boy in a polar bear hoodie took turns reading the Gospel passage about Jesus’s birth in Russian with three girls in dresses and bows who proclaimed it in Norwegian, in a shared celebration of Orthodox Christmas deep in the Arctic undimmed by war and the round-the-clock polar night.
The girls and a dozen of their fellow members of Polargospel, the children’s choir at the only church in Svalbard – an archipelago closer to the North Pole than to either Oslo or Moscow – traveled three hours by boat Saturday to mark the holiday with the 40 children in Barentsburg.
At midday in the snow-covered square of this village owned by Russia’s Arctic mining company, a full moon illuminated a bust of Lenin standing in front of a big, twinkling Christmas tree and an even larger old monument reading “Our goal is Communism” in Cyrillic script.
This far north, the sun never rises in winter.
“We who live in the north in darkness, we know how much the light means,” said the Rev. Siv Limstrand as she handed out the slim yellow candles popular in Orthodox churches to the children after the Gospel reading. “Even one weak candle in the window is enough to find the way to each other.”
The tradition of an annual Christmas visit by the Lutheran pastor of Svalbard Church and other leaders from the archipelago's main settlement of Longyearbyen – 34 nautical miles away from Barentsburg through a fjord hemmed by majestic white mountains – was suspended during the pandemic. It was put in doubt again by the war in Ukraine, which also disrupted the occasional visits by Orthodox priests.
For 18 months, none has come to celebrate services in Barentsburg’s tall, wooden chapel filled with icons. It’s always open, its light shining like a beacon through the windows toward the miners’ modern apartment complexes and out to sea.
So for the last couple of months, Limstrand worked with the church’s choir director and with the teachers at Barentsburg’s school to create a program stripped of officialdom, whose songs and short narrations focused on the Christmas Gospel message of light and peace in the darkness.
As she finalized her remarks while on the big ship Svalbard’s governor lent for the occasion, Limstrand said she wasn’t even sure if she’d offer a formal blessing at the end of the performance.
But the atmosphere had become so festive that she did invoke the Old Testament’s “The Lord bless you and keep you” verse to the audience that included church staff, parents from Longyearbyen, teachers from Barentsburg and, seated unobtrusively in the back, the general manager of Arcticugol, the mining company that runs the town.
For more than a century, mining has driven permanent settlements in Svalbard, including Longyearbyen, with about 2,000 residents, and Barentsburg, where about 350 people live. Even though it’s Norway’s territory, the Soviet Union was party to an early 20th century treaty that allowed other countries to share in mining rights, and Arcticugol continues to operate Russia’s mine.
During the Cold War, tensions flared between the two countries in Svalbard, as they have again since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including over transit for Barentsburg’s food supplies in July. In October, the Svalbard’s tourism council – representing the archipelago’s growing leisure industry – announced it would cut off Arcticugol’s tourism branch in protest against the war.
But church members approved the choir’s Christmas visit, Limstrand said, to help the children not see one another as enemies but rather pray for all – especially in such remote communities.
“We’re so far away we feel connected to all the world,” she told The Associated Press, adding that her responsibility as Svalbard’s pastor is to ensure “spiritual hospitality” beyond her Protestant flock.
Leonard Snoeks said his 10-year-old daughter had fundraised for Ukraine, selling waffles and coffee outside their home in Norway, but had no qualms coming on the choir trip with the new friends she’s made since the family moved to Svalbard six months ago from the Norwegian mainland.
“Although things are as they are, it doesn’t separate the fact that people are people,” Snoeks said. “The church choir is really important to see beyond that, to show that you care.”
To highlight this wasn’t a diplomatic overture but ministry from children for children, Saturday’s celebration took place at Barentsburg’s school.
The Russian program followed the Norwegian choir’s performance. Since most families in Barentsburg are Ukrainian, it included a poem and a rendering in that language of the globally popular “Carol of the Bells,” which was first penned a century ago in Ukraine.
Svetlana Yanevska, the school’s assistant director since May, sang the carol a cappella along with students.
She later explained that it was especially important this year to follow religious traditions together, from preparing for the performance to going house to house in Barentsburg on Christmas Eve sharing sweets like kutia, a rice pudding with nuts and raisins.
“Kids everywhere are kids. Our aim is that all kids are happy and safe,” Yanevska said.
The first Russian number started in pitch dark, with young children in white costumes dancing and rhythmically waving flashlights as a projection of Santa's sleigh moved on the wall past the Donald Duck mural.
The school’s English teacher, Maria Kharcheva, who recently moved here from Russia, explained the rays of light were meant to symbolize “the stars in the night sky when the Savior was born.”
“I’m a religious person. This holiday is very important to me. It symbolizes something pure, warm,” Kharcheva said. While she missed having an Orthodox priest on Christmas, she was delighted with this “unusual” celebration that the children had worked hard to prepare.
They all mingled over the gift exchange – presided by a teacher acting as Ded Moroz, the Slavic equivalent of Santa Claus, in flowing white beard and blue robe – followed by Napoleon cake, Russian tea, and Cokes. Then a clunky bus drove the Norwegian group over snow-packed streets back to the port for the long ride home.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.
Giovanna Dell'orto, The Associated Press