St. Urho’s Day

March 16

St. Urho statue, Menahga, Minnesota

St. Patrick is world-famous for driving the snakes out of Ireland, but the day before St. Patrick’s Day we celebrate an oft-overlooked saint named Urho, who is said to have performed the equally admirable feat of ridding his Finnish homeland of hungry grasshoppers, thus saving Finland’s all-important grape crop, and the Finns themselves, from devastation.

Plaques proclaim St. Urho’s glory, including one in Minnesota that describes the annual ceremony in his honor:

At sunrise on March 16, Finnish women and children dressed in royal purple and nile green gather around the shores of the many lakes in Finland and chant what St. Urho chanted many years ago: “Heinäsirkka, heinäsirkka, mene täältä hiiteen” (Grasshopper, grasshopper, go away!”

Urho’s deeds are recalled in poems like The Legend of Saint Urho, by Linda Johnson. Statues have been erected in his honor. His feast day is celebrated with relish by Finnish communities throughout Minnesota.

But before you go impressing your Finnish friends with all your knowledge about their culture, you should know that, while St. Urho is a symbol of pride for many Finnish-Americans, sadly the Finns themselves are all but ignorant of their great national hero. (Or of the notion that grapes grew there.)

This is because St. Urho is a completely made-up saint. He was conjured up and popularized by Finnish-Americans (most-likely intoxicated) in Minnesota in the mid-1950’s.

Envious of the attention paid to Ireland’s patron saint on May 17, Finnish Minnesotans, created their own hero, possibly inspired by the name of then Finnish Prime Minister Urho Kekkonen. There is some debate over who is to blame—I mean, who is responsible for inventing the now world-famous saint.

Richard Mattson, a department store manager in Virginia, Minnesota, explained,

“[Gene] McCavic, a co-worker at Ketola’s Department Store, chided me in 1953 that the Finns did not have saints like St. Patrick. I told her the Irish aren’t the only ones with great saints. She asked me to name one for the Finns. So I fabricated a story and thought of St. Eero (Eric), St. Jussi (John), and St. Urho. Urho, a common Finnish name, had a more commanding sound.”

— “St. Urho Creator, Richard Matteson, Dies“, Mesabi Daily News, (June 7, 2001), Linda Tyssen Williams; “Well, Here We Are: The Hansons and the Becks” by J. Robert Beck

Mattson’s original St. Urho rid Finland of its frogs, not grasshoppers, a tradition that changed over time.

Soon, the employees of Ketola’s came to respect the Finnish saint, or at least their manager’s Finnish dry humor, and began throwing “St. Urho’s Day” parties as an inside joke for their beloved manager.

The story of St. Urho was reported in the Mesabi Daily News in 1956. That may be where Sulo Havumaki, a school district psychologist in Benmidji, Minnesota got wind of it.

“Sulo was a devout Catholic and, feeling left out because there weren’t any Finnish saints, made one up with tongue in cheek: St. Urho (Maybe he adopted Mattson’s…)” — William Reid

Sulo’s devotion to the obscure saint was well-known in the town. One story goes that when a neighbor’s family took a trip to Finland, they played a rather unusual practical joke on Sulo. They took some very old bones and wood with them and arriving in Finland, found a recent obituary in a Finnish newspaper. From Finland they shipped the wood and bones to Sulo along with a fictitious letter, in the name of the recently deceased…

“Sulo received the letter, which said something like “Dear Prof. Havumaki: I am the keeper of the last relics of St. Urho. News of your faith and dedication to St. Urho have reached me across the ocean. I am dying, and commend to you those last relics because I know you will protect and revere them, and pass them to the next custodian when the time is right…”

William Reid –

Sulo took the saint and ran with it, codifying much of the lore and the rites of the festival that is St. Urho’s Day.

Regardless of the saint’s origin, St. Urho’s Day is a very real reason (excuse) for Finnish-Americans to throw parties and drink beer in his honor.

For these true-believers, St. Patrick’s Day is merely “Hangover Day.”


Ode to Saint Urho
by Gene McGavin

Ooksi kooksi coolama vee
Santia Urho is ta poy for me!
He sase out ta hoppers as pig as pirds.
Neffer peefor haff I hurd tose words!…

…So let’s give a cheer in hower pest vay
On Sixteenth of March, St. Urho’s Tay.

Origin of St. Urho

Bug Girl’s Blog

Snellman Day – Day of Finnishness

May 12

Today is Day of Finnishness in you-guessed-it: Finland. It’s also known as Snellman Day, named after the Finns’ national hero Johan Vilhelm Snellman, but referred to as Day of Finnishness (perhaps because ‘Snellman’ sounds like that teacher in high school whose nostrils screamed when he breathed through his nose).

Snellman was in fact a teacher (but no word on his nasal exhalations). He was also a statesman, journalist and philosopher, who crusaded to make Finnish the national language of Finland. While this seems like a no-brainer in retrospect, it was a controversial issue at the time.

Finnish as a written language dates only to the 15th century. According to Wikipedia:

The first known written example of Finnish…was found in a German travel journal dating back to c.1450: Mynna tachton gernast spuho somen gelen Emyna dayda… English: “I willingly want to speak Finnish, [but] I cannot”…*

[*presumably because the author was the only one who understood it.]

In the 16th century, Mikael Agricola had set down the rules of written Finnish in order to translate the New Testament. 300 years later however, outside of religious ceremonies written Finnish was still virtually unused.

Along came Snellman, who encouraged politicians and the upper classes to make Finnish a part of everyday life, a vehicle for the arts and sciences, instead of a vernacular spoken only by commoners and a written form relegated to church services. Snellman felt a unique national language was essential to building a strong, unified nation. His outspoken nationalist agenda—known as the Fennoman movement—was a loaded issue. His newspaper, Saima, was censored by the Russian-dominated Finnish government, and eventually shut down.

J.V. Snellman

After the death of the Russian Czar Nicholas I in 1855, the government eased censorship, and Snellman was appointed a professor at the University of Helsinki. He was appointed to Finland’s Cabinet in 1863 and devoted much of the remainder of his career to fixing the Finnish financial system. Russia granted Finnish a status on par with Swedish in Finland in 1892.

Finnish is virtually an island among European languages. All the other Scandinavian languages—Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic—are closely related, while Finnish’s closest relatives are Hungarian and Estonian.

After over five centuries of Swedish rule and one century as a Russian Grand Duchy, Finland declared its independence on December 6, 1917.

During World War II, Finland successfully defended its independence against the Russian invasion of 1939-1940.

+  +  +

A language of Finnish origin is currently taking over the world, but it’s not the one Snellman spoke. It’s called Linux, an open source computer operating system developed by Helsinki native Linus Torvalds. Linux is used in 90% of the world’s top supercomputers.

[Below: Armi Ja Danny – I Want to Love You Tender: Finnish National Anthem]

Mikael Agricola – The Man Who Started Finnish

April 9


Today the country of Finland celebrates Finnish Language Day, also known as Mikael Agricola Day.

Mikael Agricola may not have started Finnish but he is celebrated as a national hero for creating and codifying the written version of what was largely an oral tradition up until the 16th century.

Agricola was appointed Lutheran bishop of Turku in 1554. One of the tenets of the Reformation was the translation and reading of scriptures in native languages.

Agricola translated the New Testament into Finnish in 1548.

Some of his top Finnish language hits include:

ABC-kiria (The ABC Book) The first book in Finnish, published in 1543. It was a primer of the Finnish language. [I’d like to say it taught kids to read Finnish, but as the first Finnish book, it taught everyone to read!]

Se Wsi Testamenti — the aforementioned Finnish translation of the New Testament, Agricola’s greatest achievement.

Three liturgical books (1549). Two include prayers, services, and rituals. The third is an amalgamation of the Four Gospels, detailing Christ’s suffering.

abckiriapieni se_wsi_testimenti

Agricola hoped to translate the Old Testament as well. But his life was cut short. Returning from Moscow where he had negotiated a peace treaty, Agricola became ill and died on April 9, 1557. He was 47.

He’s remembered each year on April 9 as the Father of the Finnish language.

The major languages of the Scandinavian countries—Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic—are all related except for Finnish. Near as we can tell, Finnish isn’t related to anything except perhaps Hungarian and Estonian. Finnish isn’t even an Indo-European language. The Finno-Ugric languages are their own distinct branch, though from what tree is anybody’s guess.

It’s possible that if Agricola hadn’t come along when he did, the language of Finland would have been overrun by the languages of its more powerful neighbors.

Finnish is known for being a ‘genderless’ language, and for lacking articles such as ‘a’ and ‘the’. Also, there is no word for ‘to have.’

Helsinki Times – Celebrating the Finnish Language – Mikael Agricola Day

Liisa Tainio: Gender In Finnish Language Use

2008 Hat Party in honor of Mikael Agricola

Mikael Agricola
Mikael Agricola