Celebrating St Urho: American Finns take on St Patrick

Wood carving Image copyright BBC/PRI
Image caption St Urho says "Grasshopper, Grasshopper, go away"

St Patrick's Day is 17 March, of course. But it's not just the Irish who throw a party this time of year. Across the US, small groups of Finnish Americans are celebrating St Urho's Day, which falls on 16 March.

At the main junction in the small town of Finland, Minnesota, stands a tall carved wooden statue of a bearded man, his mouth wide open, apparently shouting.

Legend has it that sometime long ago, grasshoppers invaded Finland - the country - threatening its grapes. Then in stepped St Urho.

"He's got a big mouth, he yelled really loud and they ran away," says Honor Schauland, who coordinates the St Urho's Day parade and celebration in the town.

Image caption Honor Schauland shows of her St Urho's finery

For 39 years now, the 300 or so people in this little town in the north woods have celebrated that story.

For Amy Gardner, who's cutting out cardboard grasshopper heads for a children's game, this will be her 24th St Urho's Day.

"Every year, that's the theme. Grasshoppers, grapes and St Urho, and the colours are purple and green," she says. And though she isn't Finnish, that won't stop her.

"It's a heck of a party. After a long winter, and we've all got a bad case of cabin fever, to come out of our homes and see our neighbours and be totally silly out in the streets is really quite a relief."

And like the more famous holiday it precedes by a day, St Urho's typically involves alcohol, says Angela Maki Jones, who makes the four-hour drive north from Minneapolis every March.

Image caption A sign welcomes visitors to the 39th annual St Urho’s Day parade and celebration in Finland, Minnesota

"There's also a myth that Urho did this the day before St Patrick's so the Finns could celebrate and drink all the whiskey before the Irish got to it," she says.

According to actual history, two northern Minnesota men concocted the story in the 1950s, says Tim Winker, a self-described Finnophile who runs a website devoted to St Urho's Day.

The thinking was, "everybody celebrates St Patrick, what about all of us Finns? We need a hero too!"

And as tall tales tend to do, says Winker, the legend spread.

Image caption Sicelia Dubbin and Jenna Anderson hold a giant grasshopper they’ve made for the St Urho’s Day parade

"Florida, Oregon, Butte, Montana, there are little groups of Finns that hold a St Urho's Day celebration every year, and there are a few more every year," he says.

But what about in the mother country, thousands of miles away?

Esa Mustonen manages St Urho's Pub in Finland's capital, Helsinki. It turns out the bar isn't named after the American made-up saint, but former Finnish President Urho Kekkonen.

"In Finland we don't celebrate St Urho's day, at all," Mustonen says.

Still he is familiar with the story. He says despite the fake saint's valiant efforts, there are still grasshoppers in Finland, and the country still doesn't grow any grapes.