Happy St. Urho’s Day!

St. Urho is the patron saint of Finland, and March 16th is a celebration day for great merriment and drinking throughout all of the North. As it says on www.sturho.com, St. Urho was the saint who drove the grasshoppers out of Finland, saving the wine crop. His colors are Royal Purple and Nile Green. He did this by uttering the phrase: “Heinäsirkka, heinäsirkka, mene täältä hiiteen” (roughly translated: “Grasshopper, grasshopper, go to Hell!”).

sturhoNow, you might perhaps suggest that there are no grasshoppers in the coniferous forests and ice lands of Finland, where 25% of the land lies above the Arctic Circle. Thank to St. Urho, of course! You might perhaps suggest that Finland is not particularly known for its great wines, but neither is Ireland known for its vodka despite the ballyhoo about the potato crop. And Finland is known for its great drinking, as it ranks 9th in the world for death by alcoholism, compared with the US which is a mere 39th and Ireland which is way down at #63.

You might perhaps note that the idea for St. Urho’s celebration originated in Minnesota in the 1950s, but I would point out that there are proclamations claiming St. Urho’s day in all 50 states and that it is celebrated worldwide and in Finland. Perhaps primarily northern worldwide, wherever there are pancake breakfasts.

The celebration in Hood, Oregon is particularly festive: “Come watch the Changing of the Guards, signifying the season change from winter to spring, as the Knights of St. Urho disrobe and dance the tango with the lovely Iron Maidens to inspiring accordion music! Don’t miss the Finnish women’s drill team — such skill with those Black & Deckers with their spinning Finnish Flags! Meet the St. Urho’s Queen and her astonishing court. And don’t you dare miss Hood River’s St. Urho’s Day parade founder, Felix, in his 1970’s vintage polyester green leisure suit!”

Those Wacky Finns

You gotta love an ethnic sensibility with a sense of humor. An odd sense of humor. The Finns were the original inventors of the polar bear club – they do cut a hole in the ice in the winter to jump in. I actually watched somebody do this once when I was a kid, ice skating on a lake in Michigan. It does require a sauna first. (My aunt also swears that a sauna was best when you were roaring drunk, but I can neither confirm nor deny that.)

The sauna is also a clue to the culture. I don’t know how many of you have had an authentic Finnish sauna, but I can almost guarantee you that if it was in a hotel or gym, if no one poured water on the rocks, or if anyone said it was a saw-na (rhyming with “raw”) instead of a sau-na (rhyming with “cow”), then it wasn’t the deal. If you could breathe through your nose or could easily sit on the top step, nope. When I was a kid, we went to a communal sauna (gender-separate) where women of all ages would sit for long periods next to the giant hot stove. The older women would smack themselves on the back with birch branches called vihtas, and though it seemed weird at the time, I get as an adult why it would feel good. The hot, dry heat is great for clearing out the head and reducing stress, and the vihtas were clearly aromatherapy. There was always an element of contrast. Hot sauna, then cold air, preferably by jumping in a swimming pool or a lake or sitting in the snow.

My mom – her mothers’ original maiden name was Kaarvasaari — was a little infamous in her day for applying the heat. In the big sauna, they had a cord running around the wall above the benches, and when you pulled the cord, water would release on the rocks. My mom would get in there and pull the cord until pretty much everyone else was chased out. “You can always move down to a lower step” was the rule. I feel a little nostalgic about that era; instead of needing to have the world rearrange itself to fit you, complaining that it was too this or too that on YelpTwitFace, you could just move down to a lower step.

The great Finnish migration to America happened in the early 20th century, along with the Swedes, Norwegians and others. Like their Scandinavian neighbors, when they came to the US, they settled in the placesjust like back home – Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Upper Michigan! (When Russians come to the US, they settle in either San Francisco or Miami – no sense of humor.) Can you imagine Veikko and Aina getting off the boat in Ellis Island? “Should we settle here?” “Oh no, my little muru, it’s much too temperate here – we need more snow and less daylight…!”

There aren’t all that many Finns in the US today; they rank about 35th in ancestral derivation in the US, far below the Norwegians and the Polish. It’s true there are a lot more Irish Americans than Finns, but the highest ethnic population by far has been for decades German Americans, and they don’t try to get everyone to celebrate their own holiday. There is a pretty substantial Oktoberfest in Cincinnati, but the next largest is either in Covington, Kentucky or La Crosse, Wisconsin, which proves my point. (And if you are just looking for holidays to drink …Oktoberfest, St. Patrick’s…. why not add St. Urho’s to the list?)

Capital “M-o- barn”

What Finns are particularly noted for – other than a weird sense of humor, drinking, and thrashing themselves while sitting in 200° — is a spirit of stubbornness, also known as sisu. This is a sensibility that allowed them to fend off Russian attempts to annex their country throughout WWII and the Cold War. It lets them thrive in the cold and dark lands. Sisu roughly translates as “guts” or courage in the face of ridiculous adversity or challenges which exceed our capacity. My favorite example is a story my mom told of a great uncle, let’s call him Haarvi (be sure to roll the “r” when you pronounce that). Haarvi wasn’t able to go to school with other children because he had to stay and help on the farm. Finally, when he was twelve, his parents were able to hire someone so that he could go to school and learn to read in the one room schoolhouse. Of course, he was embarrassed that he didn’t know what all the other little ones already knew, but he didn’t want to show it. So when the teacher said, “Can anyone spell ‘barn’”? Haarvi stood right up and said, “Capital M-o….barn!” Sisu is what makes you capitalize the M.

st_urhos_day_dog_tshirtWhen I was a kid, they had those cat posters that said, “Hang in there, baby!” Today, we’d probably say  “fake it ‘til you make it.” So that’s the lesson of St. Urho’s Day for all of us. Don’t overthink whether you can do it or not. Tap into your inner sisu and just keep on doing that thing that you weren’t sure you could do. Wear your royal purple proudly and hoist a glass in honor of St. Urho, because who says you can’t?

Heinäsirkka, heinäsirkka, mene täältä hiiteen, everybody!

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