Before St. Patty's Day, raise a glass in St. Urho's honor

Before St. Patrick, there's St. Urho--the oddest, most interesting Finnish saint you've never heard of. (Don't feel bad. There aren't that many.)

St. Urho's Day always falls on March 16: "before, and therefore superior to, anything that one might celebrate on March 17th," writes Ginger Sorvari Bucklin on StUrhosDay.com, a popular website that pays tribute to all things St. Urho.

But it's not quite accurate to say that St. Urho's Day is merely the Finnish diaspora's answer to St. Patrick's Day. 

Unlike St. Patrick, who really did inhabit Ireland back in the 5th century A.D., St. Urho is a fictional saint. There's no record of any mention of the name prior to 1956. Also, St. Urho has no actual connection to Christendom, beyond the honorary title that precedes his given name. St. Patrick was an actual religious figure who converted countless Irish pagans to the Christian faith. 

And whereas St. Patrick famously drove all the snakes out of Ireland, his Finnish counterpart vanquished a much smaller, if no less annoying, pest: the grasshopper. According to legend, St. Urho's conquest saved Finland's struggling grape crop, preserving Finland's wine industry. 

Who wouldn't raise a glass to that?

As it turns out, plenty of people do. StUrhosDay.com's running list of Urho-themed festivities and meetups includes listings from Texas and various Canadian provinces, not just the upper Great Lakes region's Finnish heartland. 

"So many small town celebrations keep this tradition alive," says Bucklin.

If you're up for an extra day of merrymaking this mid-March, get a head start on St. Patty's Day with a celebratory round in honor of St. Urho.

How to Prep for St. Urho's Day

Like St. Patrick's Day, St. Urho's Day is a pretty low-key holiday. Prospective hosts need to keep just a few things in mind.

First, decorations. St. Urho's Day's signature colors are green and purple: purple for grapes and wine, and green for the leaves of the grapevine (and, possibly, an indirect homage to St. Patrick's Day's solid green color scheme). Color-appropriate streamers, table runners, and drapes are all fair game. Bonus points for real or fake grapes in the spread, and double bonus points for grasshopper figurines.

Next, clothing. Like St. Patrick's Day, St. Urho's Day is all about bright colors. Wear your favorite purple or green (Sparty fans, this means you--apologies, Big Blue) shirts, sweaters and/or hats.

Don't forget food. Traditional Finnish dishes are encouraged, though American standbys are certainly welcome. For brunchtime festivities, consider pannukakku, the custard-like pancake treat that Finnish-Americans (and a fair number of non-Finns) know and love. Or just go with regular pancakes, a reliable stand-in. Later in the day, break out the pasties--a beloved treat throughout Michigan's Finnish heartland, particularly in the U.P--or opt for spaghetti and meat sauce, another popular St. Urho's Day dish.

Finally, drink. Beer and Irish whiskey might be the drinks of choice on March 17, but March 16 is all about vine-grown libations. Since Finnish wine is (ironically) scarce, open a bottle of the next best thing: your favorite Michigan-grown wine. At family-friendly gatherings, simply substitute grape juice or non-alcoholic wine.

What to Talk About on St. Urho's Day

You know not to speak openly about politics or religion in mixed company, but what about controversial origin stories? This St. Urho's Day, it's time to settle once and for all the conflicting tales about our fictional Finnish saint came to life. 

That might be easier said than done. Most reputable sources, including the Library of Congress, identify Minnesotans Richard L. Mattson and Sulo Havumaki as the creators of St. Urho's legend. According to Tim "Timo Winkenen" Winker, a Minnesota-based St. Urho's Day enthusiast, Mattson thought up a "Finnish lad" who gained strength on a steady diet of fish soup and sour milk. In Mattson's telling, it was frogs--not grasshoppers--that Urho dispatched. Havumaki, a professor at Bemidji State University, is credited with the modern, grasshopper-y version.

To the Finnish-American faithful in northern lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, this story sounds like yet another case of Minnesota stealing all the glory. And maybe it is. There's another, equally plausible St. Urho's Day origin story: the legend of Kenneth Brist.

According to Winker, Kenneth Brist was a "slightly warped individual" originally from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. In the mid-1950s, Brist was teaching social studies in Ontonagon, Michigan, a Finnish-American redoubt in the western Upper Peninsula. Not content with one late-winter drinking holiday, he and a few local buddies are said to have concocted an elaborate scheme to create a new holiday--and a fictional saint to make it more plausible--that would fall one day before. When Brist moved back to Chippewa Falls, he occasionally took out irreverent local newspaper ads announcing the "cancellation" of the community's annual St. Urho's Day parade.

Unfortunately, no record exists of Brist's planning. Though he wasn't shy about promoting his purported role in creating the St. Urho phenomenon, he only spoke on the record sporadically --an elusive early 1970s interview with a Minneapolis radio station is the highest-profile example. Without independent confirmation, it's impossible to confirm the precise origin of the St. Urho story.

No matter who started the legend of St. Urho, some facts are not in dispute. For starters, "Urho," which roughly translates to "brave" in Finnish, is almost certainly named for Finland's then-president, Urho Kekkonen. Climatological studies strongly suggest that ancient Finland was warmer than modern Finland, meaning there may actually have been vineyards (or at least cultivated grapes) along its southern coast at some point. And, though Finland doesn't have much of a wine industry today, it does have plenty of grasshoppers--several endemic species, in fact.

Sounds like Urho didn't do his job. Maybe it was all the wine. Oh well--at least he still has "The Ballad of St. Urho," written by Kingsford, Michigan's own Sally Karttunen.

Got Time for a St. Urho's Day Road Trip?

Or post-St. Urho's Day road trip. Once the weather is a bit nicer, head to Michigan's best-known ode to St. Urho: the giant grasshopper statue in Kaleva, a Manistee County hamlet. Made of "welded junk," the statue is four feet high and about twice as long. It's been sitting in a Kaleva roadside park since the late 1990s, drawing visitors by the hundreds (at least) per year.

If you're ever in the area, Kaleva itself is worth a visit, too. Founded at the turn of the 20th century as a Finnish enclave, Kaleva is actually named for the Kalevela--a Finnish epic in the mold of the Odyssey and the Iliad. Quaint Scandinavian design touches abound on the town's facades, and the Kaleva Historical Society does a great job of promoting Kaleva's connections to the Old Country. Who knows? Maybe you'll fall in love with the place and return for St. Urho's Day 2017.

It doesn't matter how you honor St. Urho, as long as you do. Otherwise, this irreverent, fictitious saint could forever fade into the annals of oddball history.
 
Signup for Email Alerts