Move over, St. Patrick, for St. Urho
By LONN TAYLOR
The whole world knows that March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day, the feast day of the patron saint of Ireland, a day that is celebrated with parades and the excessive consumption of alcohol wherever the Irish diaspora has taken Irishmen, from Buenos Aires, where 50,000 people gather annually on Calle Reconquista to drink green beer and sing “Danny Boy,” to Moscow, where the first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in 1992. The day has been the occasion for parades in New York, Boston, Montreal, and Quebec since the early 1800s. It is an official public holiday not only in Ireland but also in Newfoundland, Labrador, and on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. It is celebrated in Australia and New Zealand. Irishmen all over Southeast Asia journey to Klang, Malaysia, on March 17 for the St. Patrick’s Society of Selangor’s ball there, which has been going on since 1925.
Oddly enough, St. Patrick’s Day was not widely celebrated in Ireland until recently. Because it is a Holy Day of Obligation, all pubs in the Republic of Ireland were closed until the 1970s, and Irish-Americans who went to Dublin to celebrate St. Patrick’s on the old sod were bitterly disappointed. It was not until the 1990s that the Irish government realized the tourist potential of St. Patrick’s Day and organized a weeklong St. Patrick’s Festival showcasing Irish culture, which now brings a million visitors to Dublin every March.
For me the quintessential St. Patrick’s Day celebration is the parade up Fifth Avenue in New York, which has been organized by the Ancient Order of Hibernians since the 1850s and ties up traffic in Manhattan all day on the Saturday closest to St. Patrick’s Day. I saw my first one in 1961 and I will never forget the societies of people from the same county in Ireland, each with its own pipe band, and each led by its officers in top hats and morning coats, marching under big embroidered silk banners that dated from the 19th century. The New York Police Department, still largely Irish in 1961, marched by singing “H-a-r-r-i-g-a-n Spells Harrigan,” Catholic schoolchildren, combed and scrubbed and uniformed, many of them African-American or Puerto Rican, stepped out proudly led by nuns in black habits. It went on for hours. Even I, who have absolutely no Irish ancestors, felt a little bit Irish that day.
While the whole world knows that March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day, only a small group of Finnish-Americans know that the preceding day, today, March 16, is St. Urho’s Day. St. Urho is a mythical Finnish saint, invented in Minnesota in 1953 so that Finnish-Americans would have their own saint to celebrate or, as some claim, would have two days in a row on which to get gloriously drunk. St. Urho was the brainchild of a Finnish-American department store clerk in Virginia, Minnesota, a town with a big Finnish-American population. His name was Richard Mattson and he died in 2001. As Mattson told the story, a fellow clerk at Ketola’s Department Store, Gene McCavic, was razzing him on the approach of St. Patrick’s Day, wanting to know why the Finns did not have any great saints like St. Patrick. Mattson made up St. Urho on the spot, telling McCavic that he chased the frogs out of Finland and saved the Finnish grape crop (never mind that there is no Finnish grape crop; that is part of the joke); that his colors were purple and green, and that his feast day was the day before St. Patrick’s Day. Mattson said that he expelled the frogs by shouting at them in an exceptionally loud voice, which he developed by eating viili (Finnish yoghurt) and kalamojakka (fish stew) daily. Urho is a common Finnish first name, and Mattson may have been inspired by the fact that a prominent Finnish politician at the time was named Urho Kekkonen. McCavic responded by writing a poem about St. Urho in Finglish, the Finnish-American dialect, which begins, “Ooksie, kooksie, coolama, vee, / Saint Urho is the boy for me!/ He chase out the ‘rogs so big and green / Bravest Finn I ever seen.” A legend was born.
Somewhere along the line the frogs became grasshoppers, and today St. Urho is remembered as the man who rid Finland of grasshoppers. There is a statue of St. Urho in Menahga, Minnesota, showing him with a giant grasshopper impaled on a pitchfork, and another done with a chain saw in Finland, Minnesota, and on St. Urho’s Day 1999 a metal sculpture of a grasshopper was dedicated in Kaleva, Michigan. In Thunder Bay. Ontario, the Finlandia Club carries a giant grasshopper slung on a pole through the streets as a prelude to their St. Urho’s Day dance. The legend has even spread back to Finland, and there is a St. Urho’s Pub in Helsinki that. According to TripAdvisor, serves delicious reindeer pizza, but not fried grasshoppers.
St. Urho’s Day celebrations are now held in every town in the United States with a Finnish-American population. There are not a lot of Finnish-Americans and they tend to be concentrated in the Pacific Northwest; Michigan and Minnesota; and in scattered cities such as Butte, Montana; Fitchburg, Massachusetts; and Lake Worth, Florida, so while St. Urho’s Day is not exactly a secret it is not widely known, especially in Texas.
The reference to “’rogs” in McCavic’s poem is her rendering of a speech peculiarity characteristic of Finns speaking English. Finns have difficulty pronouncing some consonant combinations, and especially consonants occurring before the letter “r”, and so they sometimes drop them, causing frogs to become ‘rogs. This tendency gave rise to one of the corniest ethnic jokes I know, which my wife, Dedie, who grew up in a Finnish household in Astoria, Oregon, loves to tell. According to Dedie, an old Finnish farmer from Astoria decided to drive to Vancouver, British Columbia, for the weekend. On his way back to Astoria he was questioned at the border by the U.S. immigration agent, who asked if he was a resident of the United States. “Are you ‘razy?” the old gentleman responded. “Harry ‘Ruman is ‘resident of the United States.”
Happy St. Urho’s Day!
Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.