Celebrating the Region and the Culture: Three Heikkis overtake Hancock

Heikinpaiva logo, 2004. Courtesy Finnish Theme Committee, Hancock, Michigan.
Carl Pellonpaa, host of North America’s only Finnish-language television program, is honored as Hankooki Heikki at the 2004 Heikinpäivä festival. Photograph courtesy City of Hancock Finnish Theme Committee/ Daryl Laitila.
Kenny Svenson of Traprock Valley as Heikki Lunta. Heikinpäivä, Hancock, c. 2001.
Photo Courtesy Finnish-American Reporter.
Competitors in the 2004 wife-carrying contest.
Participants in a wooden bird carving workshop Photos courtesy Daryl Laitila/Finnish Theme Committee

In 1999, the nationally active Finnish-American cultural promotion organization Project 34 scheduled a conference in Hancock, Michigan. Local organizers decided to add festival activities to conclude the conference. Coinciding with the conference was Finland’s traditional midwinter day known as Heikinpäivä (Henry’s Day) after the Catholic patron saint of Finland, St. Henrik. Organizers soon created a festival based around this day, and the traditional folklore surrounding it.

At the Heikinpäivä parade, St. Henrik (right) marches each year. The real St. Henrik was martyred in 1157 by a Finnish peasant named Lalli who resisted the Swedish push to Christianize the Finns. Photo courtesy City of Hancock Finnish Theme Committee/Daryl Laitila

With the name of the day, and the increasing popularity of Heikki Lunta, it only made sense to add him to the festivities. Soon, too, an honorary title of Hankooki Heikki (Hancock’s Heikki) was also created to round out the list. Hankooki Heikki is chosen each year in recognition of locals who have most contributed to the Finnish-American culture. As James Kurtti, one of the festival’s founders says, “There seems to be a lot of Heikkis… it just turned out that way.”

A resounding success in its first year, Heikinpäivä has grown to become a fixture in the local festival schedule. This festival is explicitly ethnic in nature, with attractions including a Tori market, a wife-carrying contest, a traditional seisovapöytä (smorgasbord), and the polar bear dive, in which participants jump into the Portage Shipping Canal. Finnish crafts, food, arts, and music are centerpieces of the event.

Each year, Traprock Valley resident Kenny Svenson marches in the Heikinpäivä parade as Heikki Lunta. He wears a crown of birch bark with snowflakes hovering overhead. He carries a Finnish flag and wears a ragged flannel shirt. Parade viewers can either cheer for him or heckle him, telling him to go away. In this image, we see combined elements of Finnish pride and deprecation. He is poor and unsophisticated; he is also a Finn with the power to move the very skies to snow. He ties to images of the hardships of immigrant and early ethnic life in America at the same time that he ties to images of Finnish nationalism, and of Finnish shamanism. He dances further into a place of prestige and into the consciousness of others at the same time that he must negotiate an acceptable space for himself, and for other Finns and Yoopers.

Because Finland is no longer a Catholic society, the celebration of Catholic saint days is no longer practiced. This day continues to be associated with Saint Henrik through its use as the secular name day for Heikki or Henrik. On this day, people with this name may receive cards and gifts, much like on one’s birthday. When most Finns were still engaged in agriculture, this day was also recognized as the midpoint of winter. Finns would use this day to take stock of their winter supplies, ensuring that at least half were left in order to survive the long winter. Popular folk sayings reflecting this tradition were brought by the immigrants to America, where they exist among community elders to the present day. In Finland, these folk sayings are now moribund, if not extinct. Three of the most common such sayings are as follows:

Heikki heinää jakaa. (Heikki divides the hay).
Karhu kylkeänsä kääntää (The bear rolls onto his other side)
Talven selkä poikki (Winter’s back is broken).

In addition to celebrating local traditions no longer existent in Finland, and a saint no longer recognized, Heikinpäivä highlights the strong presence of Finnish culture in the region, recognizing folk culture, high arts, and even silly modern attractions in Finland, including the annual wife-carrying contest and the boot-throwing contest. Although Heikinpäivä’s primary association is with St. Henrik, it is impossible to dissociate Heikki Lunta from this festival. His inclusion in the festival highlights the strong ties between Finnish and Finnish-American folk traditions, and the continued use of Finnish ethnicity in a post-immigrant culture.

COPYRIGHT:© Hilary Virtanen 2006
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