One of the most fascinating places we have ever visited was the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago. Sitting almost halfway beween the north of Norway and the North Pole, it’s a land of the midnight sun and the polar night. Svalbard they say, is home to more polar bears than people! There are countless glaciers and dramatic mountains and fjords to be wondered at, and even in mid summer the remains of winter’s icebergs can still be seen. It’s also home to the white fox and reindeer and the rock ptarmigan, the only landbound bird that stays for winter.
When we put our clocks back on the last weekend of October, I thought of the shortening days and dark nights ahead, and then remembered Svalbard and its residents. That same weekend for them was the start of the polar night! This means that they will not see the sun again until 8 March 2021.
When we visited there a few years ago our first port of call in Svalbard was Ny-Alesund on the island of Spitsbergen, which is home to a number of international arctic research stations. Most are active throughout the summer months, but some 30+ researchers remain throughout the year. It was a rainy day when we arrived, but somehow that just added to the feeling of wilderness, isolation and the sheer ruggedness of the place, and indeed caused us to consider the tenacity of the people who live and work there, summer and winter! Here are a few photographs .
We then sailed further north to the Magdalena Fjord, where once there was a British whaling station, but now it is completely abandoned, just the graves of some seamen are there, who died in this cold unforgiving place.
After Magdalena we moved south to Longyearbyen, a small mining town and the largest populated settlement in Svalbard with over 2000 residents. It is also the administrative centre for the Norwegian Government. Here you will find hotels and tourist organisations offering a variety of adventure holidays, and also a very interesting museum. Fortunately the weather had inproved when we arrived, and again the scenery was spectacular. This however, was the wrong time of year for seeing the ‘northern lights’ for which this place is famous!
What is it like to live through a polar night winter in this cold dark place? Christiane Ritter’s book entitled ‘A Woman in the Polar Night’ would make a great read during ‘lockdown’, you’ll be caused to consider how well off we are! Here’s Muriel reading an excerpt!
REFLECTIONS: Winter for us has always invoked memories of cosy nights around the fireside with family and friends, laughter, games and story telling, and the sharing of good food and drink. We also associate it with streets lined with ‘fairy lights’, brightly decorated shops and town squares, not to mention Christmas markets, Christmas trees and shopping! At Church we think of choir practices for the coming carol services and youth events, and of children’s Christmas parties. The women folk are always busy with sewing, knitting, and craft making activities for the ‘sales of work’ in support of missionaries and charities. The Church community cafe is in full swing bringing in local friends including the walking and photography clubs. And quietly and consistently the Bible is being taught at Sunday services, and in house groups, strengthening Christians in their faith, and also sharing the good news about Jesus with those who are searching for answers to life’s big questions.
However this year, many in Europe are fearful as we approach winter, because of the increasing threat of Covid-19. Some of us have family and friends who have been infected with this disease, and indeed others are still grieving the loss of loved ones. We are all doing our best to cope with another partial or full scale lockdown, with the restrictions and mental anguish and economic hardship that they entail.
I have wondered, how I would cope living for months in a land of permanent gloom and darkness with not a chink of sunlight to cheer the day. I guess that people will sometimes ask in their hearts ‘will the sun ever rise again?’ It’s the same with this pandemic, people are asking ‘will things ever get back to normal again?’ Well, people do persevere and live through the polar night, and celebrate the day when above the horizon the sun dares to raise its head and shine again. We too need to look foward with hope to a day when we will celebrate together as this pandemic is at least neutralised. But the fact is we can be joyful and at peace in our current circumstances, perhaps that’s the hard lesson we need to learn from this pandemic. Life can be enjoyed at a less frenetic and different level. Jesus offered to the people of His day ‘Life in all its fullness‘and that offer is still open. How about reading a good book, telling the kids a story, going for a run or walk, gardening indoors or out, starting a hobby, baking or cooking etc. etc. Jesus brings daily hope and joy into our lives if we come to Him and seek His forgiveness and help. I find singing or listening to some of my favourite Christian songs in the morning, and then reading the Bible sets me off for the day, for as the Psalmist says ‘Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path‘. Of course speaking to God in prayer is also a must! That is truly an anchor for the soul!
For those feeling uncertain and concerned about dark days ahead, I like the poem quoted by King George VI on Christmas Day 1939 at the start of the last world war. It reads, “I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’ And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be better than light, and safer than a known way.'” How true! When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:32
If you are reading this, and feel that you are living through a period of gloom and darkness, then please seek professional help now, (SAMARITANS Telephone 116 123, or The National Christian Lifeline telephone 0300 111 0101) there is light and life and hope to be found.
Let’s all keep looking up, like those in Svalbard, we may not see the sun yet, but it is still there, and Jesus the Light of the World is still there, inviting us to come to Him.