St. Urho's Day

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St. Urho's Day

Type of Holiday: Folkloric
Date of Observation: March 16
Where Celebrated: Minnesota, Michigan, and by Finnish-American communities across the United States and Canada
Symbols and Customs: Chant, Fish Soup, Ode to St. Urho, St. Urho Statue
Colors: Purple, the color of grapes, and Nile green, the color of grapevines and grasshoppers
Related Holidays: St. Patrick's Day ORIGINS

St. Urho's Day is a celebration of fairly recent origin. It was invented in the spring of 1956 by Richard L. Mattson, a manager at Ketola's Department Store in Virginia, Minnesota, a town about ninety minutes north of Duluth whose population included many immigrant iron mine workers. One of Mattson's coworkers, a woman of Irish descent named Gene McCavic, was teasing him about the fact that the Finns did not have a famous patron saint like St. Patrick. In a burst of inspiration and national pride he made one up, naming him St. Urho and giving him credit for chasing the poisonous frogs out of Finland in much the same way that St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. Urho is a fairly common name in Finland, and it just so happened that the president of Finland at the time was Urho Kekkonen. With Mattson's help, McCavic wrote an ODE TO ST . URHO that told the story of a poika (Finnish for "boy") named Urho who uses his powerful voice- part of the great strength he has developed from eating FISH SOUP and sour milk- to chase away the frogs that have been plaguing his homeland.

The idea caught on, and a few years later a professor from Bemidji State University named Sulo Havumaki elaborated on the St. Urho legend by changing the plague from frogs to grasshoppers (locusts), which destroyed the grapes that were at one time so plentiful in Finland. Although St. Urho's Day was originally supposed to be May 24, it was shifted to March 16, the day before ST. PATRICK'S DAY , so that Finnish-Americans could get their celebration underway before the Irish-Americans started. The holiday spread from a few towns in Minnesota-Virginia, Menahga, New York Mills, Wolf Lake, and Finland-to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and parts of Montana and Ontario. Today it is recognized in both Canada and all fifty American states, although it is only celebrated in areas with a large Finnish-American population. There is even evidence that the holiday has been carried back to Finland by native Finns who have visited the United States.

The typical St. Urho's Day observance begins at dawn on March 16. The women and children gather along the shore of the nearest lake and repeat the legendary CHANT that St. Urho used to get rid of the frogs in Finland so many years ago. The men, who are all dressed in green, form a procession to the lake, waving pitchforks and making hopping or kicking movements like the imaginary grasshoppers who litter their path. Along the way, they change from green to purple clothing, symbolizing the disappearance of the grasshoppers and the reemergence of the grapes. Afterward, there is a celebration at which people sing, dance to polka music, and drink wine or grape juice.

Richard Mattson died on June 5, 2001, shortly before his 88th birthday. He was the manager at Ketola's Department Store for forty-two years but is probably best remembered for his creation of the St. Urho legend.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Chant

The chant that is repeated wherever Finnish-Americans gather to celebrate St. Urho's Day is "Heinäsirkka, heinäsirkka, meine täätä hiiteen," which means, roughly, "Grasshopper, grasshopper, go away."

Fish Soup

Mojakkaa (moy-yah-kah) or fish soup is a favorite Finnish dish. Along with sour whole milk, it is mentioned in Gene McCavic's original ODE TO ST . URHO as one of the foods that made the young Urho so strong.

Ode to St. Urho

The original "Ode to St. Urho," written on a piece of wrapping paper in Ketola's Department Store, has been preserved at the Iron World Museum in Chisholm, Minnesota. It is written in Finnish dialect and goes like this:

Ooksie kooksie coolama vee Santia Urho is ta poy for me! He sase out ta hoppers as pig as birds Neffer peefor haff I hurd dose words! He reely told dose pugs of kreen Braaffest finn I effer seen! Some celebrate for St. Pat unt hiss nakes Putt Urho poyka kot what it takes. He got tall and trong from feelia sour Unt ate culla moyakka effery hour. Tat's why day guy could sase does peetles What crew as thick as chack bine needles. So let's give a cheer in hower pest vay On this sixteenth of March, St. Urho's Tay!

St. Urho Statue

Statues of St. Urho can be seen in both Menahga and Finland, Minnesota. The St. Urho in Menagha was originally carved in 1982 by a chainsaw sculptor from a 2,000-pound oak block, but it has since been replaced with a fiberglass replica to make it more resistant to the harsh Minnesota weather. It shows a twelve-foothigh figure of a bearded man with a grasshopper at the end of his pitchfork. The one in Finland is eighteen feet tall and resembles a totem pole rather than an actual human figure.

FURTHER READING

Trawicky, Bernard, and Ruth W. Gregory. Anniversaries and Holidays. 5th ed. Chicago: American Library Assocation, 2000.

WEB SITE

Roadside America www.roadsideamerica.com/sights/sightstory.php?tip_AttrId=%3D11468
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

St. Urho's Day

March 16
St. Urho, whose name in Finnish means "hero," is credited with banishing a plague of grasshoppers that was threatening Finland's grape arbors. His legend in the United States was popularized in the 1950s, largely through the efforts of Professor Sulo Havumaki of Bemidji State University in Minnesota. After being celebrated as a "joke holiday" for several years in the Menahga-Sebeka area, the idea spread to other states with large Finnish populations.
The actual celebrations, which are largely confined to Finnish communities, include wearing St. Urho's official colors—Nile green and royal purple—drinking grape juice, and chanting St. Urho's famous words, "Grasshopper, grasshopper, go away," in Finnish. In some areas there is a ceremonial "changing of the guard"—in this case, two makeshift guards carrying pitchforks or chainsaws (to cut down the giant grasshoppers) who meet and exchange clothing, including humorous or unusual undergarments.
The similarities between this day and St. Patrick's Day, observed on March 17, can hardly be overlooked. St. Patrick, who is believed to have driven the snakes out of Ireland, is widely regarded as a rival to St. Urho and his grasshoppers. There is some evidence that native Finns who have visited friends and relatives in the U.S. are taking the St. Urho's celebration back to Finland with them.
CONTACTS:
Menahga Civic & Commerce
P.O. Box C
Menahga, MN 56464
218-564-4557; fax: 218-564-4612
www.cityofmenahga.com
SOURCES:
AnnivHol-2000, p. 45
OxYear-1999, p. 121
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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