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.