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South of the Boarder: St. Urho Day celebration in Whitlash, 2019


March 11, 2020

The Whitlash church celebrated a combined St. Urho /St. Patrick Day on Sunday, March 17, 2019. John Maatta (center of photo in robe and crown) played the part of St. Urho, the mythical saint who ran the grasshoppers out of Finland and saved the grape vineyards. Maatta, of Finnish descent himself, demonstrated how the mythical saint commanded: "Heinasirkka, Heinasirkka, Mene Taalta Hiiteen!" (Grasshoppers, grasshoppers, Go away!)

Columnist's note: A couple of years ago I read about the annual March 16 celebration of St. Urho's Day in Butte. St. Urho Day celebrations occur in regions of the U.S. where Finnish immigrants live. The fact that it is celebrated the day before St. Patrick's Day is not coincidental. The idea of a St. Urho's Day celebration began when a Finnish American was chided by a friend of Irish descent who said, "Too bad the Finns don't have a saint they can celebrate." That remark resulted in Richard Mattson's retort, "We do have a saint..." And then Mattson and other Finnish Americans created the story of St. Urho. The first celebration was in 1956 in Virginia, Minnesota.

The story is that the mythical saint ran the grasshoppers out of Finland and saved the vineyards (and the wine). I wanted to celebrate St. Urho's Day so my wife and I began gathering props to outfit a St. Urho character. I even made a cardboard grasshopper to go atop a pitchfork, the symbol that St. Urho mimics carry.

We moved to Whitlash and met John Maatta, a retired Extension Agent in Chester who was formerly the part time minister for the Whitlash church. More importantly for the planned St. Urho Day celebration, John is of Finnish descent. Here's a bit of history about this "fake news" holiday and how we celebrated a combined St. Urho/St. Patrick's Day in the Hills.

Finns in Butte and the

St. Urho Day celebration in Montana

In Minnesota Richard Mattson, who first began the myth of St. Urho, originally spun a tale of how poisonous frogs threatened the crops in Finland. Per the myth, Urho, a young rural priest, contrived a sluice to capture the destructive frogs and shipped them to France. Mattson originally wanted the holiday set in May but discovered by mid-March Finns in northern Minnesota were ready for a little fun after a long winter. Having the holiday on March 16 also gave the Finns a bit of one-upmanship over the Irish. A professor at nearby Bemidji State College later tweaked the story and made grasshoppers the culprits to be driven out. Over time special menus for the day were created including fish stew and/or fish head soup, a special type of rye bread, hard tack and chocolate cake.

Finnish miners came to Butte and brought with them the St. Urho tradition. From about 1890, for several years, things were very hard in Finland as grasshoppers really did eat the crops. Hecla Mining had several copper mines on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the company sent recruiters to Finland to hire workers for its U.S. mines. Several thousand left farms in Finland to work at mines in Michigan as well as mines on the Mesabi Iron Range in Minnesota. By 1900 the highest mining wages in the U.S. attracted hard rock miners from the Midwest to Butte.

Irv Niemi was a second generation owner of what became the Helsinki Bar in Butte's Finntown. Niemi knew of the St. Urho Day celebrations from his Finnish connections in Minnesota and sometime in the 1970's introduced a St. Urho celebration at his bar. That bar is now closed and the St. Uhro Day celebration was staged in recent years at the East Side Athletic Club in Butte. The 2019 celebration was "In memory of Butte's St. Urho founding father, Irv Niemi" (Niemi died in October, 2018) and followed its traditional format: crowning of Saint and Princess Urho, a bagpipe band and a dance to follow.

John Maatta, a retired Extension Agent from Chester, grew up in northern Minnesota. Grandparents on both sides of his family came from Finland and John can still speak Finnish. He came last March 17 to help the church celebrate its first ever St. Urho's Day. Urho is a mythical saint created by Finnish-Americans in Minnesota in the 1950's so they could "have their own saint for special celebrations." The made-up saint's birthday was set on March 16, a way for the Finns to start celebrating a day earlier than the Irish.

The Whitlash Presbyterian Church congregation celebrated both St. Urho and St. Patrick's Day on Sunday, March 17, 2019-since the two saints' holidays fall on consecutive days-with a potluck lunch after church. To honor St. Urho one parishioner brought a very creative "fish head" soup made with Goldfish (the crackers) floating on top of a salmon chowder. To honor the Irish saint there was also corned beef on rye sandwiches, green Jell-O, and a chocolate cake with Irish Cream in it. John Maatta, who grew up in Minnesota, still speaks Finnish and agreed to recreate the scene when St. Urho demanded the grasshoppers leave Finland.

St. Urho's Day is losing

some of its relevance for Finns

In a 2014 public radio interview at St. Urho's Pub in Finland (named after a former Finnish President, not the made up saint) the bar owner said, "In Finland we don't celebrate the day at all." He'd heard the story of St. Uhro but noted despite the fake saint's efforts, grasshoppers are still in Finland and the country still doesn't grow grapes.

There are an estimated 700,000 Finnish-Americans in the U.S. (out of a total population of 325.7 million) and promoters of St. Urho Day events say the second and third generations are "losing interest in the tradition." Still, many work hard at keeping the fake saint's memory alive. Just ask the folks at the East Side Athletic Club in Butte where the tradition is alive and well. Go ahead, mark your calendar for next March 16 and plan to remember the heroic "Saint of the Vineyard Workers."


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