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Celebrating a Finnish legend

Finnish and non-Finnish people gathered to celebrate the legendary St. Urho.

THUNDER BAY - Every March, as people tip a drink to Saint Patrick, there are those who celebrate Saint Urho the day before, the heroic Finnish figure who chased the grasshoppers out of Finland, saving the grape crops.

“It’s such a quirky event,” said Heleena Stephens, one of the coordinators of St. Urho Day in Thunder Bay. “It’s a completely made up event that happened in the 50s and it’s been here since about the mid-80s. I mean, who doesn’t want to celebrate grasshoppers being chased away by a hero?”

All weekend people are celebrating St. Urho at the Finlandia Club. This is the first year the normally single day event was carried over to a weekend long celebration, which included a concert Friday night featuring Conga Se Menne, a variety show, a market, Finnish food, and of course, the St. Urho Parade down Bay and Algoma Street on Saturday afternoon.

“This year is Finland’s 100th independence year, so it’s like it’s their 100th birthday,” Stephens said. “So we thought we had to go big or go home. It’s also been tricky to cram everything into one day, it’s just gotten more popular since we started doing it the last couple of years, so we thought why not?”

St. Urho was created by Finnish-Americans in Minnesota in the late 1950s. The holiday is not actually celebrated in Finland and was created as a way for Finnish immigrants in North America to celebrate Finnish culture.

The holiday made its way to Thunder Bay in the 1980s with the Otava Male Choir organizing the first celebration. For the last 30 years, Otava ran the annual festivities, but due to declining membership numbers, have since passed the torch.

“I think it’s important that the younger generation started kicking in,” Stephens said. “A lot of the people who are second or third generation Fin, this is exactly their kind of event because it doesn’t exist in Finland, it’s only here in North America, so I think it’s important to show our Finnish-North American roots.”

At the centre of all St. Urho’s celebrations is the parade. Gathering outside the Finlandia Club, people marched down the Bay and Algmoa area with signs and rakes, helping St. Urho chase away the grasshoppers.

For the second time, Adam Nousiainen got to be St. Urho, leading the parade down city streets.

“It’s a great day to get all the Finlanders and non-Finlanders together, anybody who wants to come out,” he said. “It’s basically a gathering day for everybody to get out and enjoy themselves and do a little walk and chant.”  

Even though he is portraying a fictional legend, Nousiainen takes it very seriously, for the most part, and he hopes his son will one day take his spot because he is already a St. Urho in training.

“It’s actually pretty fun,” he said. “It is my second year doing it. Walking around and getting everybody to cheer and I get to make an idiot out of myself, well not really an idiot. I like it though. My son wants to be a Urho in training, so maybe in the next 10 years he can take over.”