Are you the type to sit and listen politely while someone tells you a joke you’ve heard before? Are you inclined to counter with counterfeit incredulity while someone bends your ear with a load of “my brother knew this guy who” yickety yack, even though you know he’s only rerouting an urban legend that’s been making the rounds forever?
I am. Which is why I found myself nodding politely and interjecting the occasional appropriate “oh, really” and “you don’t say” at the Cinz Bar in Butte last Thursday, as several Finnish-Americans and their sympathizers took it upon themselves to tell me, with all the earnestness they could muster, that they’d turned out to pay their respects to Saint Urho, the holy man who broke off his particular chunk of hagiographic notoriety by driving the grasshoppers out of Finland. Out of the vineyards of Finland, specifically, using not DDT or Raid or companion planting, but song.
At this point, you may very well be asking yourself what the hell, man. Saint who? Scoff all you want at the idea of a Finnish Saint Patrick, but the legend of Saint Urho is serious business in Butte and other towns with significant concentrations of second- and third-generation Finns, who get together every March 16 to celebrate all the wonderful things he did for the fatherland and its viticulturists.
Or rather, would have done, if the lore and legend surrounding him weren’t a combination of apocrypha and straight-up horseapples. Have you looked at a map lately? A full vertical third of Finland lies north of the Arctic Circle. It’s hard to believe that Finns ever made a concerted effort at mastering grape husbandry, especially when you consider that there are places in the country where it’s all a farmer can manage to coax anything besides dwarf birch and heather out of the frozen tundra.
But try telling all this to the hundreds of people stuffed into the Cinz. Butte has celebrated Saint Urho’s day since 1956, when Helsinki Bar owner Irv Niemi imported the tradition from Menahga, Minn., the traditional seat of the Saint Urho legend. The saint’s protective color is purple, and at first glance the Cinz gathering looks like some kind of post-season shindig for the Minnesota Vikings. Sturdy Butte gals trailing purple tinsel. Purple hats, purple T-shirts, purple sweatshirts. Elderly ladies drinking beer and selling green and purple pipe cleaners twisted up to look like grasshoppers. This is the first time the Cinz has hosted the festivities since the Helsinki Bar closed its doors last year, but if anyone’s nostalgic for the Helsinki you’d never know it. Every two or three minutes, a spontaneous cheer breaks out and a hundred Budweiser cans are raised in unison.
The Saint Urho legend started in Virginia, Minn., in the early ’50s, apparently as an office joke in a department store with the tellingly Finnish name of Ketola’s. The holiday is now recognized in all 50 states and enthusiastically celebrated in Finn-heavy places like Butte, Menahga (where town officials erected a 12-foot fiberglass Saint Urho statue), Illgen City and (of course) Finland, Minn. The basic procedure is the same everywhere: don the blessed purple and drink like an old dirty mother. In some areas, locals stage a passion play reenacting the saint’s epic banishment of the crop-threatening grasshoppers; the town fathers arm a ceremonial guard with pitchforks and drive to the nearest body of water, where the grasshoppers are symbolically driven into the Baltic with sung chants of “Heinäsirkka, heinäsirkka, mene täältä hiiteen.” Translated with utmost literalness: “Hay-cricket, hay-cricket, go to the devil.”
Finland itself, mostly Lutheran, hasn’t got much in the way of a Catholic tradition. The closest thing the country has to a patron saint is the legend of poor Bishop Henrik of Uppsala—long on good intentions but short on discretion—who in the late 12th Century took a sauna with the wife of a peasant named Lalli and was promptly martyred by Lalli and his trusty axe. The singing part of the Urho legend, however, has some interesting ties to Finland’s pre-Christian national epic, which speaks of heroes settling wagers by singing each other into swamps, singing people back from the dead, singing to summon all manner of supernatural forces.
As hokum goes, the Saint Urho legend and its nebulous backstory of bona fide Finnish tradition make for a good read, and a great party. Perhaps the most important feature of any Saint Urho celebration is the crowning of the Grasshopper King, complete with ornate purple mantle, horned hat and pitchfork scepter. For the past two years, Butte’s Grasshopper King has been Gene Wagner, a great scowling Teuton whose kingly duties consist mostly of acting as surly as possible and occasionally sticking his tongue down the throat of a female subject. For a combination of spiritual leader and secularized holy man, his office certainly reeks of simony. His terse reply to my nervous queries concerning the electoral process: “Because for the past two years I’ve been buying drinks for every fuckin’ Finlander in town.”
But the real reason Saint Urho’s Day is so popular is because it’s the day before Saint Patrick’s, giving Butte folk a ready excuse to get started early. And when in Rome—or Butte—well, you know.