"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Friday, March 16, 2012

On St. Urho

There’s an essay in here somewhere. It comes around once a year, on the sixteenth day of March, carrying a pitchfork on which grasshoppers are spitted. It speaks with a Finnish accent. It wears purple and green, so it doesn’t get pinched.

But here's the thing. Up until a few years ago--fewer than I'd like to admit--I didn't know that the story was made up. It's fake. There is no such person as St. Urho and he didn't drive all the grasshoppers from Finland, thereby saving the vineyards. He never existed. Never. It's all fake. It's a phony myth that was created in the 1950s, either in Virginia, MN or Bemidji, MN--nobody knows for sure. Maybe I should have had a clue, when nobody outside northern Minnesota knew what I was talking about on March 16th.

This seems so very, very wrong, but not on the levels I'd expect.

Maybe I should be more embarrassed than I am about being so sucked into this story that I believed it was true. Maybe I should have taken things with a grain of salt. But it never occurred to me that such a story would be true, at least on a mythic level. After all there's a statue of St. Urho in Menagha, twenty miles from my hometown. Menagha crowns a King and Queen every St. Urho's Day. Besides, the lack of logic didn't bother me. St. Patrick, who is celebrated one day later, drove all the snakes from Ireland--so why was it hard to believe that another saint had done the same with grasshoppers? One was as unlikely as the other, but most of the saints' stories are fairly unrealistic, logically. But that's the whole purpose of faith, right?

I'm also not Catholic. I'm not Finnish either. (Or Irish enough to really be able to claim St. Patrick.) So I had no real frame of reference either. How was I to know all the saints, especially the obscure ethnic ones? I was raised Lutheran, Swedish and German. Of course, according to certain sources, more than three quarters of Finns are Lutheran--and we don't do saints. We're taught that we're all saints, though I'm fuzzy on the actual theology there. It seemed enough to participate--even peripherally--in a cultural celebration, even if I didn't share the culture. It seemed enough that St. Urho (and carry over into St. Patrick's, the next day, two full days of partying) could bring together groups of people. On St. Urho's Day, everybody could be Finnish. I'm not sure why anybody would want to be Finnish--so says a staunch Swede--but that's the way it goes.

Everybody wants a hero. Maybe everybody needs a hero. One of the explanations for the invention of St. Urho is that somebody wanted to know why the Finns didn't have a hero-saint like the Irish had in Patrick. Maybe we want the illogic that comes with such a hero, a common person able to do extraordinary things, a hero that pays no attention to historical accuracy or the laws of physics and nature. All cultures have hero myths, from the Judeo-Christian traditions to the Greeks and Romans--as well as our own modern cultures. There has to be a reason for it. I want to sneer at St. Urho--just as I shake my head at all those who think green beer is a suitable celebration of St. Patrick--but I can't make myself do it. I still like St. Urho.

And what's not to love about Finnish flatbread and pasties? From the genuine Finnish bakery in Menagha? It's curious to me the invented traditions that have come with St. Urho's Day. Maybe something as invented as this is real, simply because somebody wished it into being. There are parades and celebrations all over northern Minnesota, even into Wisconsin and the UP of Michigan. People are celebrating, so by virtue just of that, St. Urho is real. It's a kind of reality that I like.

So who cares if he ever existed? I don't think I do.

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