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In St. Urho, Finns have a hero and a reason to celebrate

Aurora Ramsdell holds a target displaying a grasshopper pierced with arrows shot by St. Urho, the made up Finnish-American saint who freed Finland of grape-devouring grasshoppers, March 8, 2014. Finnish Americans in several towns in northern Minnesota and across the country now celebrate the holiday, which falls the day before St. Patrick's Day. Credit: Dan Kraker/MPR News1 / 2
Sicelia Dubbin and Jenna Anderson hold a giant grasshopper they've made for the St. Urho's Day parade in Finland, Minn., March 8, 2014. The holiday that originated in northern Minnesota in the 1950s celebrates St. Urho, who allegedly saved Finland's grape crop from a horde of hungry grasshoppers. Credit: Dan Kraker/MPR News2 / 2

Finland, Minn. -- At the main intersection in Finland, along State Highway 1, there stands a tall wooden carved statue of a bearded man with his mouth wide open, apparently shouting.

"Grasshopper, Grasshopper, go away," he warns in Finnish. As legend has it, long ago, grasshoppers invaded the country of Finland, threatening its grapes. Then, in stepped St. Urho.

"He's got a big mouth," said Honor Schauland, who coordinates the city's annual St. Urho's Day parade and celebration. "He yelled really loud and they ran away. That's the legend."

As the Irish and would-be Irish prepare to celebrate St. Patrick's Day on Monday, in small towns across Minnesota and the nation, Finnish-Americans are readying for the celebration of St. Urho, which falls on Sunday.

After all, Saint Patrick chased away snakes and St. Urho rid his land of grasshoppers.

For nearly four decades, the 300 or so people in Finland, a little town in the north woods, have celebrated the story.

Much like Embarrass and other little towns that dot the Arrowhead region, Finland traces its roots to the 1800s, when thousands of Finns came to Minnesota. They were first drawn to farming communities in central and western parts of the state, then to the iron mines in the northeast.

Their descendants' party is such a tradition that even non-Finns like Amy Gardner look forward to it.

Gardner recently prepared for her 24th St. Urho's purple and green celebration by cutting out cardboard grasshopper heads to be used for a kid's game.

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

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

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

Finland's celebration features a unique twist on the holiday. Tonight, local men will dress in drag and compete in the Miss Helme beauty contest. The winner rides in the parade on Saturday. Contestants display their talents at four bars, including the Four Seasons Supper Club, owned by Bonnie Tikkanen.

"We've had some wonderful contestants, young and old, many of our Miss Helmes have already passed away from the first ones," Tikkanen said. "Some of those were beautiful Miss helmes, I tell you when they were all dressed up you couldn’t tell the difference if they were a man or a woman!"

The legend of St. Urho isn't as ancient as it sounds. One or two Finns from northern Minnesota likely concocted both the saint and his legend in the 1950s.

"There are two people that really are given credit for coming up with it, and we're not really sure who was the first," said Tim Winker, a self-described Finnophile who runs a website devoted to St. Urho's Day.

Winker said it might've been Sulo Havumaki, a Finn from Bemidji. But he said it is more likely that Richard Mattson, a Finnish-American department store manager in Virginia, Minn., came up with the idea.

"Well, everybody celebrates St Patrick," Winker said. "What about all of us Finns, we need a hero too!"

As tall tales tend to do, the legend spread. From Florida to Oregon, small groups of Finns hold a St. Urho's Day celebration every year, Winder said.

But what about in the mother country? Has it migrated from Finland, Minnesota to Finland?

"In Finland we don't celebrate St. Urho’s day, at all," said Esa Mustonen, who manages St. Urho's Pub in Helsinki.

As it turns out, the bar isn't named after the American made-up saint, but former Finnish President Urho Kekkonen.

But Mestonen is familiar with the story. Despite the fake saint's valiant efforts, there are still grasshoppers in Finland, he said, and the country still doesn't grow any wine grapes.