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…”
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.
7 Replies to “St. Urho’s Day”
Great review of St. Urho’s Day. Dr. Sulo Havumaki was my professor and I like to believe the creator of this fictional saint. At least that’s the story I’m going with in my blog coffeesnobology.com.
I have to say St. Urho’s Day is one of my favorite holidays, and I’ve covered quite a few of them. We are all in debt the to good professor!
Todavia necesito aprender mas sobre todo esto para poder elegir la opcion mas sensata para mi. Ahora busco informacion sobre lo que llaman de la “dieta dominguera”.
I am Richard Mattson’s son. I have been well aware of what has transpired since Dad created St. Urho. Gene McCavic was an employee of Ketola’s Department Store in Virginia, Minnesota, who wrote the original Ode to St. Urho. My sister went to Bemidji State and had Dr. Havumaki as an instructor her first year there. She had mentioned St. Urho one day, and Dr. Havumaki asked her about him. It is known that Dr. Havumaki was interested in folklore from the Iron Range, as the Range is made up of many European backgrounds. It was from here that Dr. Havumaki probably took the idea and changed it to grasshoppers. The date was also changed to the present day from May seventeenth. I give Dr. Havumaki cudos and credit for getting St. Urho better known and spreading the word about him and his antics. However, he did not create St. Urho. Richard Mattson, my Dad, did. The real proof is in hard print at the Mesabi Daily News in Virginia in the archives. I have yet to see any bonafide proof that Dr. Havumaki or any other person created St. Urho before that. If so, I would like to hear from them and see their proof. In the meantime, let’s keep upholding and celebrating the memory of a great fictional saint!
Thanks for shedding light on that Mike! If you don’t mind I’d like to include your comment in the actual post itself.
When people ask me if any holidays stand out in my memory, I always mention St. Urho’s Day. There’s something about it that captures the imagination.
I had the privilege of having Sulo as my professor in the winter quarter of 1969 at BSU. Sulo would lead his students through the tunnels of BSU playing instruments on St. Urho’s Day. Bemijdi State University has numerous tunnels for students to go from building to building on the sprawling campus without having to venture outside in the cold winters.
Sulo may not be the creator of St. Urho’s day but he certainly promoted the great day. I will always cherish my memories of his inspiring teaching and sense of humor
I just heard of st. Urho on Sun. I put on my purple shirt from the Korpela clan gathering and had the most wonderful Sunday I have had in a long time