I created a couple blog stories last year about the Heikinpäivä Mid-Winter Festival, so I wasn’t going to film or write anything about this year’s fest. I didn’t want to appear biased toward this one particular festival or lazy that I only cover the same Finnish-American events year after year. Then I realized I should be documenting and sharing all my Finnish-American experiences, regardless if I’ve done them already. I just need to find a new aspect, or a new way, to share.
Heikinpäivä is created each year through the efforts of the Finnish Theme Committee of Hancock. Hancock is 60 miles north of my home, in the Keweenaw Peninsula, also known as the Copper Country. I involuntarily volunteered to join the committee last year, even though I live an hour away, after I was the Hankookin Heikki, the grand marshal of the parade and festivities. I’m happy to help where I can.
This year was special. It was the 20th Heikinpäivä Festival. Check out my earlier stories here and here for the history of the festival and its mission. This year I rode in the wagon with some of the past Hankookin Heikki’s, so I took photos of the spectators, instead of the parade. They are the reason why there's a parade, so why not!
Two years of attending and I ended up in the parade both years. I have a feeling I’ll never be a spectator. Committee members are encouraged to suit up. Dancing and marching down Hancock’s main street are many costumed characters symbolizing Finnish and Finnish-American mythology and folklore. I’m calling dibs now on a bear costume next year. The brown bear is the national animal of Finland and an old Finnish folk saying states winter is half over when “the bear rolls onto his other side.”
I wore a traditional Finnish dress from the Heritage Center archives; long colorful skirt, white blouse, blue vest and tan leather boots. With three thermal layers underneath it plus hand and foot warmers, I stayed surprisingly warm all day. It was a chilly weekend. The afternoon high temperature was 0.
Since I created videos about the festival last year, I practiced my photography skills to document the event and people this year. The colorful cast of characters and spectators contrasted beautifully against the pure white snow.
I had the most fun photographing the wife carrying competition. A contest with very Finnish roots and one you will find at most Finnish-American festivals. The competition is said to stem from early folklore of thieves sneaking into villages at night and stealing wives. Finland hosts the World Championship Wife-Carrying competition every year.
The Heikinpäivä committee puts their own spin on the race. In lieu of a competition of strength and agility, theirs is more tongue in cheek and the “obstacles” reflect a typical Copper Country Sunday. New this year, participants had to rake the forest (as all good Finnish stewards of the forest do). From there they had to shake out the rag rugs, swat each other in the sauna and pour coffee for visitors. And of course, carry your wife from obstacle to obstacle. Well someone must be carried. Rules are lax, a reflection of the laid-back spirit of the area. Finlandia University students got into the spirit and the winning team wasn’t your traditional husband and wife duo.
After the entertainment outside concluded, I went indoors to eat, buy raffle tickets and shop. Inside the hall, vendors sold Finnish wares, hand crafted items, Finnish foods, jewelry, rag rugs, books and art at the tori. Tori is the Finnish word for market. I spent all the cash I had with me, and then some. It’s a good thing and a bad thing that vendors now accept credit/debit cards and I can go swipe happy throughout the tori. Actually, the first place I was awed by tori vendors being able to accept plastic was in Finland. Which was wonderful because I only had so many Euros on me!
Later in the afternoon I helped the ladies in the kitchen prep food for the evening dinner and dance. And taste test all the cookies to make sure they were delicious enough to serve. They were. Heikki Lunta (translates to Hank Snow, the winter shaman of the U.P.) graced the Copper Country with his presence while we were in the kitchen, so I had to leave early and drive 60 miles home. Snowflakes were falling faster than I could brush them off my car. I took some words of wisdom someone posted on Facebook earlier this winter – a photo with Yooper mottos – “go slow and follow the plow”. It was slow, but the highway was clear of snow drifts and I made it home safely.
The bear has rolled over, the Heikinpaiva Mid-Winter festival is through. We’re halfway to spring. Plenty of time left to snowshoe.
More of my favorite photos of the festival below.
A FInnish-american mardi-gras
“Heikinpäivä! Heikinpäivä!” shouted the Winter Snow Queens. “We are the winter snow queens! And he's our royal king!” The Snow Queens pointed out a spectator on the sidewalk. That snow king just happened to be my brother in law standing with the rest of my entourage. I didn’t get to witness these shenanigans because I was perched on top of a giant blue and white chair in my own horse drawn wagon overseeing the Heikinpäivä parade. It was my honorary duty as Hankookin Heikki; to wear the robe and crown and carry my scepter.
Dancing down Main Street of Hancock, Michigan were many Finnish characters from the Kaleva, St. Henrik who the day is named for, and Finnish-American folklore characters such as Heikki Lunta and St. Urho with a life-sized grasshopper to chase away. All in fun, these costumed characters also teach a little about Finnish and Finnish-American folklore and mythology.
You could say it was a little like a Finnish-American Mardi Gras parade.
Heikinpäivä translates to Henry’s Day or Heikki Day. In Finland every day has a name day, and St. Henrik’s Day is associated with the old traditional midway mark of winter. Old folk sayings like “Karhu kylkeänsä kääntää” or “the bear rolls onto his other side” means that winter is half over when the bear (representing winter) rolls over in the den. So of course, bears parade down Main Street too.
Heikinpäivä originated in Hancock in 1999 by the Finnish Theme Committee as a way to bring Finnish-American culture to third and fourth generation Finnish-Americans. It was 32 degrees and sunny that first day and the streets of Hancock were full of people watching the parade and lining up for pea soup. The festival's fate was sealed and now Heikinpäivä is no longer only a Copper Country festival. Finns in Fitchburg, Massachusetts now have a Heikinpäivä. And Pyhäjoki, a community in Finland has also decided to join the celebration. They even choose a Heikki to honor each year as well. I would be interested in meeting my counterpart in Finland!
After the parade, accordion music blared from the local radio station’s outdoor speakers and the costumed characters began to dance in a circle. Festival goers joined in the Karhunpeijäiset (loosely translates to English as “bear spiral”), a spiraling winter folk dance. All the costume colors twirling against a snowy backdrop is a beautiful sight in mid-winter.
Children spun around in the vipukelkka, or whipsled, a traditional Finnish outdoor game where a sled is attached to a long pole on a pivot on a post. Someone got a good workout pushing the kids around all afternoon. A kicksled race was put on for kids to see who was the fastest on two skis.
Some adult outdoor fun that is more contemporary Finland is the Wife Carrying Contest (Eukonkanto). However, whereas in most places the contest is quite athletic, in Hancock in January, it’s more “street theater” according to Jim Kurtti, director of the Finnish-American Heritage Center. Not only do you have to carry your spouse, you must beat the rugs, swat each other in the sauna and pour coffee for your guests. As Jim calls it “a typical Copper Country Saturday”.
If standing outdoors in January isn’t your idea of fun, a Tori (marketplace) is set up inside the Heritage Center, where you can buy plenty of handmade crafts, food, coffee and sweets. Finnish-American musicians entertained guests with folk music throughout the day in the Heritage Center art gallery.
The largest display of sisu came later in the afternoon with the Polar Bear Dive. Or maybe it is a way for folks to show how hullu (crazy) they are. Not one to be afraid of any icy dip, I was the first Hankookin Heikki to take the dive! Of course I had to do it just to be the first! It was refreshing and got the blood pumping. Kind of like when you jump in the snow after sauna.
There were many more events that day and throughout the month of January to celebrate Heikinpäivä. These are just the ones I attended as Heikki. One of the classes held each year is a Leipäjuusto (squeaky cheese) making class. Jim told me the class fills up because everyone enjoys eating the cheese, so register early!
If you’re interested in attending next year check their website or Facebook page for a full calendar. I am still honored to be chosen as Hankookin Heikki and what a wonderful way to attend my first Heikinpäivä.
Enjoy some sights and sounds from Heikinpäivä 2018 in my video at the top of the page.
Kristin Ojaniemi is a Finnish-American filmmaker, video creator and proud Yooper full of sisu.