Thunder Bay Finns celebrate St. Urho, Finns' answer to St. Patrick

American ex-pats invented the holiday, according to Thunder Bay Finn Kari Jamsa. St. Urho, they said, drove the grasshoppers out of Finland and saved the country's vineyards.

American ex-pats invented the holiday, according to Thunder Bay Finn Kari Jamsa

Kari Jamsa, right, is hoping to carry the grasshopper again in this year's St. Urho's Day parade on Saturday, but he might have to fight for it, he said. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

While many Canadians celebrate St. Patrick's Day Saturday, Finns in Thunder Bay, Ont., will be donning purple and green outfits and marching along Bay Street in honour of St. Urho's Day, an ode to a fictional character said to have driven out the grasshoppers from Finland's vineyards.  

The annual St. Urho's Day parade departs at noon from the steps of the Hoito and will be followed by a variety show with local musicians and performers and by an evening comedy show.

This year's parade takes place the day after St. Urho's Day, which is celebrated each year on March 16.

Finns in Finland might be surprised to learn of this cultural tradition, however, as it actually began with a group of ex-pats in the United States seeking to launch a celebration to rival St. Patty's, according to 70-year-old Thunder Bay Finn Kari Jamsa. 
The foyer of the Finlandia Club was filled with signs and props Friday in anticipation of Saturday's St. Urho's Day parade. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

"I guess they sat in the bar there and had a few green beers, and they figured that this is ridiculous. ... We could do something similar," he said. 

The local Finnish men's choir brought the tradition to Thunder Bay more than 30 years ago, Jamsa said, and at first, he admits, he was not impressed.  

"I sort of frowned upon it, you know?" he said.  "I didn't take part in the parade at first.  I just came to look from the sidelines and made comments [like] 'What the heck is this, you know? This isn't anything to do with Finland.'"

But as organizers persisted and the event grew in size, Jamsa admits he grew to love it. 

His son-in-law now plays the role of Urho, which means "hero," in the local parade.
Hoito head cook Darlene Granholm said up to 50 people attend each year's St. Urho's Day parade. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

"Urho is the man that chased the grasshoppers out of Finland to save the wine crop in Finland," Jamsa said.

"As we know, there is no winery in Finland ... no winery in Finland that I know of," he added, laughing.

Up to 50 people attend the St. Urho's Day parade each year according to Darlene Granholm, a head cook at the Hoito; there is no similar St. Patrick's Day event.

[The Irish] used to paint their clover leaves all over Bay Street too for St. Patrick's Day. It was just like a competition between the Finns and the Irish," Granholm said. 
The foyer of the Finlandia Club was decorated with grapes Friday in honour of St. Urho's Day. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

On Friday, the Finlandia Club was decorated with grapes, green balloons and purple streamers in celebration of St. Urho, while large rakes — representing the tools used to drive the grasshoppers from Finland — and signs bearing slogans such as "Finns have more fun" could be seen in the foyer in preparation for Saturday's parade. 

"Last year, I had the privilege to carry the grasshopper, but we'll see what happens," Jamsa said, referring to the large insect replica that's part of the event.

"There's a lot of people want that honour to carry the grasshopper, so maybe I have to fight for it," he said, laughing.