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Heikinpäivä: Keeping traditions alive in a fun, wintery way

As Finn account for nearly 40 percent of the population in Hancock alone, Finnish traditions are extremely common in the Keweenaw. The celebration of Heikinpäivä, a Finnish winter festival celebrated annually in Hancock, came to a close this past weekend with all of the pomp, circumstance and sisu that could be riled up on a damp winter day. 

Heikinpäivä is a festival to celebrate St. Henrik, the bishop of Finland who died Jan. 20, 1156. St. The legend states that the Bishop’s killer’s wife falsely claimed that the Bishop had been ungrateful and stolen food, cake, beer and hay and left nothing but ashes. He chased the Bishop down on skis with an axe which he used to cut the Bishop down. According to legend, St. Henrik asked his coachman to gather his body parts together and place it in a  cart drawn by a stallion. When the stallion broke he was to replace it with an ox and where the ox stopped build a church. Here Henrik was buried.

These days, Heikinpäivä is more a celebration of mid-winter than it is a celebration of a murdered Bishop. Events celebrate Finnish tradition, honoring old customs, dances, costumes and music.

Events had been spread out through most of the month of January, with the majority of the fanfare falling this past weekend.

Saturday kicked off with the annual parade, led by a color guard and the Michigan Tech Pep Band, complete with their signature fire-blowing trumpet. Various groups from throughout the community marched in the parade, such as the Finnish Students of Finlandia University, dressed in traditional clothing, and Rise U.P., a group that marched in celebration of one hundred years of women’s suffrage.

So many beautiful and well-crafted costumes were on display by those that marched, from traditional Finnish clothing to intricate animal costumes. One man was even dressed in an impressive swan costume that towered over everybody with its long neck and huge wingspan.

Following the parade was a gathering at Quincy Green, on Finlandia University’s campus. Groups of colorfully-dressed and elaborately-costumed individuals gathered in linked circles, connected by the hand holding, for a traditional-style dance with music. Amongst the dancing, laughing and smiling ensued, adding to the carefree and celebratory atmosphere.

Also present was a Vipukelkka, or whipsled, powered by Finn U’s baseball team. The small sled is connected to a large bar, which the members of the baseball team pushed in order to move the sled. Kids and college students alike boarded the sled for a fast-paced fun winter ride.

Perhaps the most comical activity on Quincy Green was the Wife Race. Aptly named, the Wife Race is a traditional event where the husband carries his wife through a series of small challenges. However, the Wife Race is certainly not just for husbands and wives; any and all participants were encouraged by the judges. Pairs of individuals of all backgrounds, ages, sexes and marital statuses participated in the event. Roommates (like two of my friends that participated), teammates (like two members of Finn U’s baseball team) and of course, husbands and wives, gave their all in the unique challenge. Not only did one of the participants have to carry the other, but they had to go through a series of obstacles dedicated to Finnish lifestyle, such as checkpoints featuring a fake sauna and fake coffee guests. One participant in the wife race even carried his daughter along for the ride, making his run a little more difficult but giving the judges something to laugh at.

Down the street from Quincy Green, at the Finnish American Heritage Center, there were even more festivities going on. Musicians played Finnish tunes while other Heikinpäivä celebrants worked on a traditional Finnish snowflake sewing project. Further inside was an entire market dedicated to the Copper Country and its Finnish inhabitants. Everything from bread and jam to authentic Finnish stationery were available for purchase. To wrap up the celebration, food was available for purchase as well. Warm ham stew (perfect for the damp, snowy day), Finnish pastries, Keweenawan pasties (though they’re not Finnish in heritage, they’re undoubtedly important to U.P. culture) and more were just the kinds of things needed after a happy and fun day celebrating Heikinpäivä.

For someone that knew next to nothing about Finnish culture before moving to the Keweenaw, and still knows very little, I am glad that events like these are present in the community. It gives the people that cherish their Finnish heritage a chance to celebrate it, and for those of us that don’t share any Suomi blood, it creates a wonderful chance to learn about and understand some of the unique beauty exhibited by each and every culture.

Heikinpäivä is celebrated every year in Hancock and attracts attendees from all over the world. This is a wonderful time to bask in the ethnic glory of Finnish tradition and enjoy some delicious food as well. Though the weather wasn’t great, the festival definitely was.

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