Saint Urho’s Day

The holiday to celebrate ahead of Saint Patrick’s


Photo courtesy of Hilary-Joy Virtanen

PATRON SAINT — Saint Urho’s Day celebrates Finnish American culture through the story of how the fictional character saved Finland’s grape crops from giant grasshoppers.

Justin Van't Hof, Editor-in-Chief

During the middle of March, no holiday draws the same attention as St. Patrick’s Day, the celebration of the Irish saint. There is no denying the popularity of the iconic Irish-American holiday, however, there is another holiday the day before celebrating a different and fictional patron saint — Saint Urho of Finland.

Saint Urho is a Finnish American tall tale story invented in 1956 by Richard Mattson, a department store manager in Virginia, Minnesota. It was in response to Finnish people being teased about their lack of culture by Irish Americans for not having any worthy saints or heroes and holidays.

“Mattson invented a story of a saint who chased all the giant grasshoppers — apparently the size of small dogs by some reports — out of Finland, thus saving the grape crops from which Finland’s famous wines are made. This too is all tongue-in-cheek since Finland doesn’t produce wine,” said Hilary-Joy Virtanen, Assistant Professor of Finnish & Nordic Studies at Finlandia University.

After the folk story was invented, it spread quickly to Finnish American communities and is celebrated widely in the Minnesota Iron Range which hosts a large Finnish American population. Towns in the area throw festivals in honor of St. Urho. Finland, Minnesota even hosts a drag competition for Miss Helmi, St. Urho’s girlfriend.

While St. Patrick was a real person and a revered Catholic saint who is important to Irish identity both in Ireland and the United States, St. Urho was specifically invented as a way to celebrate “Finnishness” in America, said Virtanen.

“These marginal statuses certainly contribute to a rebellious sense of pride among both ethnic communities. Both St. Patrick and St. Urho are also ways to introduce neighbors to one’s own ethnic culture through celebration and playful activities. They both include people,” Virtanen said.

While celebrations differ from person to person, the main way to celebrate St. Urho is by wearing purple and green to symbolize the wine and grasshoppers.

“Well, the first thing is that you are supposed to wear purple. Second, it usually involves dancing to a Finnish band,” Director for the Beaumier U.P. Heritage Center Daniel Truckey, said.

Though St. Urho’s Day may be celebrated more in the Iron Range, it is celebrated in the U.P. and Wisconsin where there are other Finnish communities. In Marquette, there will be a Winter Roots musical festival featuring Finnish and Scottish folk music. On March 16 at the Ore Dock Brewing Company from 6-8 p.m. is Hiawatha Traditional Acoustic Performances of St. Urho’s Day concert featuring Wil Kilpela with Cliff Porter and Conga Se Menne.

While there won’t be any traditional Finnish foods at the event, many St. Urho celebrations often have Finnish baked goods such as Pulla Nisu bread and Justoa (squeaky cheese,) Truckey said.

Due to the holiday becoming important in these communities, there was even a push from a Minnesota man to have it officially recognized in every state. Joseph Kyllonen from Minnesota started a campaign to get every state governor in the US to sign a proclamation recognizing St. Urho’s Day starting in 1975. By 1982, he completed this goal, Virtanen said.

Although the history of the holiday is less than 100 years old, it is relevant in Finnish American communities. Now with the internet, the holiday has been able to reach a larger group of those with Finnish culture than ever before.

“Something all cultures do when they face social change is worry about the future of their culture. Making new things that the people will love and turn into a tradition is in itself a tradition as honorable as St. Urho,” Virtanen said.