Origins of the mid-winter festival of Heikinpäivä

HANCOCK — Heikinpäivä continues to gain popularity every year as word of it spreads across Michigan and the region.

On Jan.12, 2017, the Michigan House of Representatives passed a resolution to declare January 2017 as Finnish-American Heritage Month in the state of Michigan.

Then Rep. Scott Dianda introduced the resolution, which mentioned Heikinpäivä several times. But by 2017, Heikinpäivä was already more than a decade old.

Jim Kurtti, director of the Finnish American Heritage Center, said the origins of the festival in Hancock date back to the early 1980s, when the Hancock City Council appointed 12 residents to the new Finnish Theme Committee, a group that was directed to preserve Finnish heritage and utilize Finnish themes for community development.

But what exactly is Heikinpäivä?

“Heikinpäivä is a Finnish-American mid-winter festival intended to celebrate all the quirks and qualities of the Finnish people and their descendants in the U.P,” finlandia.edu states.

“The festivities originate from an annual holiday commemorating the martyrdom of Saint Henrik, the patron saint of Finland, and celebrating the halfway point of winter, when, as the old Finnish saying goes, “the bear rolls onto his other side.”

Starting in mid-January, just as the midwinter blues begin to hit, Michigan.org states the shenanigans of Heikinpäivä (hosted by Hancock’s Finlandia University) last for up to a month.

When Hancock established the Finnish Theme Committee, it worked to develop a sister-city relationship with Porvoo, Finland, to display Finnish flags and bilingual street signs along the city’s main street. It gave recreational areas new Finnish names and encouraged businesses to adopt a Finnish flavor.

In 1999, the committee created the Finnish-American celebration – Heikinpäivä.

The celebration’s themes are taken from Finnish folk sayings associated with the name day for Heikki (Henrik’s day, 19 January). According to the finlandia.edu website, the Finns make up the largest ethnic group of Michigan’s Copper Country.

In Hancock, approximately 40 percent of the population claimed Finnish ancestry in the most recent federal census, the website stated.

According to the late-13th century document “The Legend of St. Henrik,” Christianity was introduced in Finland in the second half of the 12th century following a successful crusade led by King Erik of Sweden, who brought Bishop Henrik with him as a representative of ecclesiastical power. Henrik was the English-born bishop of Uppsala, the most important diocese of Sweden at that time. He had come to Scandinavia in 1153, apparently with the papal legate Nicolaus Albanensis, who would later become the only English-born pope, taking the name of Adrian IV.

Finnish speaking residents of the Copper Country still recall the proverbs their parents and grandparents brought with them from Finland. In particular, the weather proverbs connected with St. Henrik’s Day have been retained in the Hancock area: “Karhu kylkeänsä kääntää” (The bear rolls onto his other side), “Heikki heinät jakaa” (Heikki divides the hay) and ultimately, “Talven selkä poikki” (winter’s back is broken). The bear – an ancient Finnish and Saame symbol — figures well in the celebration, as do Saame and winter sports themes.

Heikinpäivä organizers keep a watchful eye on the celebration’s uniquely ethnic flavor. Finnish crafts, music, food, films, and games provide something for everyone. Although a Hancock City event, the Heikinpäivä spirit has spilled into neighboring communities. From Calumet to South Range, activities abound.

Over the years of Heikinpäivä, the number of events has grown, most of them recognizing some aspect of traditional Finnish culture, including arts and crafts, music and food.

Just one example is the festival’s annual Wife-Carrying Contest, wich comes from an old Finnish tradition. This sport of wife-carrying comes from folklore of thieves sneaking into other villages at night to steal other men’s wives. Regardless of its bizarre origins, wife-carrying at Heikinpäivä is a light-hearted event that lets couples test their strength and trust in a highly entertaining fashion.

Kicksled racing is just one more example. A traditional Scandinavian form of transportation, kicksleds can be used to carry a passenger or luggage, and also function as dogsleds. Once used out of necessity to traverse packed snow and ice, kicksleds at Heikinpäivä now carry eager participants in a series of exhilarating races that you’ll certainly get a kick out of.


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