Grasshoppers beware: St. Urho reigns today

The wearin' of the green and "Erin go bragh" will mark Monday as St. Patrick's Day. But today it's the wearin' of the royal purple and Nile green and "Illonen St. Urho's paivaa." Many people will tap into Irish traditions, including greetings of ...

The wearin' of the green and "Erin go bragh" will mark Monday as St. Patrick's Day.

But today it's the wearin' of the royal purple and Nile green and "Illonen St. Urho's paivaa."

Many people will tap into Irish traditions, including greetings of "Ireland forever" on Monday. But "Happy St. Urho's Day" also has a following, especially in northern Minnesota.

According to the legend of St. Urho, patron saint of Finns, archeologists found an account of the saint's feat scratched on the thighbone of a prehistoric giant bear. Before the last ice age, when Finland had a milder climate, grapes grew abundantly all around the country. But the grape crop was threatened by a plague of grasshoppers or locusts.

Finnish vineyard workers and wine makers were in despair, but St. Urho saved the crop by chanting "Heinasirkka, heinasirkka, menetaalta hiiteen," which translates as "Grasshopper, grasshopper, go from hence to hell."


A statue in Menahga, Minn., depicts the saint with a giant grasshopper speared on his pitchfork. The pose suggests he also took some direct extermination tactics.

This is the official legend of St. Urho inscribed on the plaque attached to the statue's stone base. But Urho, which means "hero" in Finnish, never existed.

Local origins

The origin of the legend came from a Bemidji State College psychology professor, Sulo Havumaki. He came to Bemidji in 1956 after serving as a school psychologist in St. Paul where St. Patrick's Day is a big deal.

"He was overwhelmed with St. Patrick, so he thought he'd help out St. Urho a little bit," said Doris Havumaki, Sulo's 84-year-old widow.

Sulo taught at Bemidji State until his death in 1970, but Doris was invited to break a bottle of Wild Irish Rose wine over the toe of the Menahga statue when it was dedicated in 1982.

"I christened it," she said.

"Our whole family was there," said Doris and Sulo's son, Luke Havumaki.


An account by William Reid recalls Sulo asking a Bemidji couple, Hermann and Renata Eschen, to take a letter to Finland with them on vacation and while there, find a recent obituary in a Finnish newspaper, have the letter translated into Finnish and sign it with the deceased's name, mail the letter and a bone to Sulo.

Reid in his St. Urho Web site said Havumaki received the letter, which read, "Dear Prof. Havumaki: I am the keeper of the last relics of St. Urho. News of your faith and dedication to St. Urho has 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."

Relic misplaced

Luke, a fourth-grade teacher in Faribault, Minn., said in a telephone interview that he remembers seeing the bone relic in a display case at Bemidji State when he was a child. However, he said the relic's whereabouts is currently unknown, perhaps in storage somewhere since Doris moved two years ago from her house in Bemidji to an apartment.

"In our own immediate family, we'll always exchange cards," he said.

For some years, Luke announced St. Urho's Day parades, which were always cancelled at the last minute for weird reasons.

For example, once the cancellation was caused by a flute player in the marching band being impaled by a clarinet when the musicians tried to march in a grasshopper formation.

"I could pick any route I wanted," he said.


When St. Urho's Day falls on a school day, Luke brings his students grasshopper cookies, which he implied are actually made with grasshopper parts. "I say, 'If you're lucky, you'll get an antenna or a leg for a little extra crunch.'"

Other claims

There are other accounts of St. Urho's origins, and Luke has heard them. One is that the legend started in 1956 in Virginia, Minn., when employees of a department store concocted a joke to play on their Finnish manager. But that must have been a spinoffof Sulo's saint because he "discovered" St. Urho before he arrived in Bemidji in 1956.

In the book "Of Finnish Ways," author Aini Rajanen states: "On St. Patrick's Day (the manager) had been guilty of the heinous heresy of refusing to be impressed by the Irish claims for their saint. Pooh, said he. Finns have an even greater hero named Urho, and he told tall tales of the saint's mighty prowess. His staff bided their time. On the day which he had named as the feast day of St. Urho, they greeted him with a hand-carved nutcracker purporting to be the image of the saint, a frog and a hand-lettered scroll on which an Irish lass (no less) had written a pidgin-Finn rhyme that sang the deeds of his legendary hero."

The Virginia story credited St. Urho with saving his country from a plague of frogs and was celebrated May 24, so Luke gives it short credence.


Mitch Rautio, owner of Keg N' Cork in downtown Bemidji, said he is of Finnish ancestry and usually wears purple for St. Urho's Day. But because his restaurant is closed today, he said he would skip the commemoration this year and concentrate on helping organize the World's Shortest St. Patrick's Day Parade. Registration for the parade is open until the parade starts at 5:30 p.m. Monday. The parade runs half a block and across Beltrami Avenue from Keg N' Cork to Brigid's Cross Irish Pub.

Pat Grimes, another Finnish-American, said Sulo was her professor in college. She said she plans to join Bemidji's St. Patrick's Day parade, but she celebrated St. Urho's at Saturday's Squaw Lake festival. That town puts on a St. Urho's Day parade and holds a kalamojakka cook-off.


"It's Finnish fish chowder," she said. "It's not a Finnish dish. Finns in America make it."

As a comparison, she noted that people in Norway don't eat lutefisk, a Norwegian-American delicacy.

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