March 17 is St. Patrick's Day, of course. But it's not just the Irish preparing for a party this time of year. Across the US, small groups of Finnish Americans are readying for the celebration of St. Urho’s Day, which falls March 16.
At the main intersection in the small town of Finland, Minnesota, stands a tall, carved, wooden statue of a bearded man, his mouth wide open, apparently shouting.
"What St. Urho's saying was, 'Grasshopper, Grasshopper, go away,' which in Finnish is Heinäsirkka, heinäsirkka, mene täältä hiiteen,” says Honor Schauland. “My pronunciation is probably not great. Finnish people are probably going to laugh at that.”
Schauland coordinates the St. Urho's Day parade and celebration in Finland, the town. She says legend has it that sometime long ago, grasshoppers invaded Finland, the country, threatening its grapes. Then in stepped St. Urho.
"He's got his mouth open, he’s got a big mouth, he yelled really loud and they ran away,” says Schauland. “That’s the legend."
For 39 years now, the 300 or so people in this little town in the north woods have celebrated that story.
For Amy Gardner, who was cutting out cardboard grasshopper heads for a kid's game, this will be her 24th St. Urho's Day.
“Every year, that’s the theme. Grasshoppers, grapes, and St. Urho, and the colors are purple and green," she says.
"Are you of Finnish descent?" I ask.
"Not at all,” she says, laughing. “It’s a heck of a party. After a long winter, and we’ve all got a bad case of cabin fever, to come out of our homes and see our neighbors and be totally silly out in the streets is really quite a relief."
And like the more famous holiday it precedes by a day, St. Urho’s typically involves alcohol, says Angela Maki Jones, who makes the four-hour drive north from Minneapolis every March.
"There’s also a myth that Urho did this the day before St. Patrick’s so the Finns could celebrate and drink all the whiskey before the Irish got to it," Jones adds.
Now, according to actual history, two northern Minnesota men concocted the story of St. Urho in the 1950s. Tim Winker, a self-described Finnophile who runs a website devoted to St. Urho's Day, says a man named Richard Mattson probably came up with the idea.
The thinking was, “everybody celebrates St Patrick, what about all of us Finns? We need a hero too!"
And as tall tales tend to do, says Winker, the legend spread.
"Florida, Oregon, Butte, Montana, there are little groups of Finns that hold a St. Urho's Day celebration every year, and there are a few more every year," he says.
But what about in the mother country, thousands of miles away?
I called up Esa Mustonen, who manages St. Urho's Pub in Finland’s capital, Helsinki. It turns out the bar isn’t named after the American made-up saint, but former Finnish President Urho Kekkonen.
"In Finland we don’t celebrate St. Urho’s day, at all," Mustonen says.
Still he is familiar with the story. He says despite the fake saint's valiant efforts, there are still grasshoppers in Finland, and the country still doesn't grow any wine grapes.
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