St Patrick’s Finnish Replacement: St Urho

By Debra Kelly on Friday, February 21, 2014
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“Thou shalt not covet, but tradition / Approves all forms of competition.” —Arthur Hugh Clough, “The Latest Decalogue”

In A Nutshell

St. Patrick has long been the patron saint of the Irish, said to have driven all the snakes out of Ireland. In the 1950s, Finnish immigrants who had settled in Minnesota were apparently jealous enough of the Irish saint to create their own. St. Urho—who is celebrated on a March 16 feast day—is said to have driven the grape-destroying grasshoppers out of Finland so many years ago.

The Whole Bushel

Everyone knows the story of St. Patrick, the legendary patron saint of Ireland who drove all the snakes from the island and who is cause for a major booze-up every March 17 (in the United States, at least). Perhaps less well-known is St. Urho, the Finnish answer to St. Patrick. (And also in the United States.)

According to the story, St. Urho lived in a pre–Ice Age Finland. It was warmer then, and the country’s grape crops were under threat from giant, pre–Ice Age grasshoppers. St. Urho wasn’t about to stand for any of that, and took it upon himself to drive the grasshoppers out of Finland. Supposedly, he did so by shouting at them, a phrase that’s been roughly translated as meaning, “Grasshopper, grasshopper, go to Hell!”

Today, those of Finnish descent across the northern United States and Canada celebrate St. Urho’s Day on March 16. There are parades, talent contests, and even a traditional food—mojakka, a type of fish soup.

So . . . what’s the deal, Minnesota? Jealous much?

Just who started the stories about St. Urho is up for debate, but it’s believed they began in the 1950s as a clear rip-off of St. Patrick. Grasshoppers instead of snakes, wine instead of beer, and even assigning him a feast day that’s one day before Ireland’s patron. Even the colors of St. Urho will look familiar—purple and green.

There’s a couple different people who claim to have invented St. Urho. In one version, he was originally responsible for driving frogs out of Finland. According to another story, a devoutly Catholic Finnish immigrant was disappointed at her country’s lack of an official saint, so a family member procured some human bones and sent them to her in the mail. He included a letter saying that the bones were the last surviving relics of St. Urho, and she was now destined to be the guardian of the relics.

Perhaps strangest of all is that what started off as the telling of a tongue-in-cheek fairy story has ended up being recognized as an official holiday in all 50 states. In some places, the St. Urho celebrations last for the entire weekend; other places have a parade that goes in one direction for St. Urho, stops, turns around and goes back the other way in honor of St. Patrick.

There are even several giant statues to St. Urho that can be seen in Minnesota—one in Menahga, and one in the tiny little town of Finland, Minnesota. (That one is a rather abstract interpretation of the story, and as it’s across the street from a chainsaw sculpture of a fish holding a keg . . . well, we’re pretty sure that might be enough explanation.) The more recognizable sculpture is a fiberglass replica of the original, a 3.6-meter-tall (12 ft) man wearing big boots and holding a giant grasshopper skewered on a pitchfork.

And there’s an official Ode to St. Urho, too, telling how he drank his sour milk and ate his mojakka like a good, growing boy should, and became strong enough to rid the country of their grasshopper problem.

Sadly, in the end, there are still grasshoppers in Finland. Nice try, Urho.

Show Me The Proof

Saint Urho’s Day: March 16th
Roadside America: St. Urho, Grasshopper Chaser (pictures of statue)