It should be no surprise that Finlandia University takes great pride in its Finnish heritage. According to The Finnish American Reporter, approximately 40 percent of Hancock’s population bears Finnish ancestry, the largest ethnic group in the region, making recognition of this history significant to many locals. Finnish traditions and culture are woven deeply into Finlandia and the Copper Country’s philosophies and approach to life, but there is one time each year where these cultural roots are shown in all their glory: Heikinpäivä.
This unwieldy mess of vowels is undoubtedly familiar to Keweenaw locals, but for those of us who are unacquainted, Heikinpäivä (which is obviously pronounced Heikinpäivä; for clarification, click here!) 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. 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.” Liliana Lazo, an alum of Finlandia university, and winner of last year’s wife-carrying contest (see more below), said “the Heikinpaiva festival is so welcoming with so many activities, cultural differences, and being at Finlandia, everyone should look forward to attending!”
In Hancock’s rendition of this age-old tradition, the merriment takes place at the end of January each year. Among the many events on offer at Heikinpäivä, these are the five that will bring out your love for Finland, no matter your heritage.
1. Polar Bear Dive
Few things exemplify the spirit of the UP like diving through a hole in the ice in the middle of winter for no other reason than “Why not?” Even if you’re not bold enough to face the cold yourself, it is always fun to see friends and strangers subject themselves to the frigid waters of the Portage Canal. “I really enjoyed participating in the Polar Bear Dive last year,” said Emma Nelson, a junior at Finandia from Cape Coral, Florida. “I plan on doing it again this year.” See the bone-chilling highlights from 2015’s Polar Bear Dive here.
Note: because of weather, this year’s Polar Bear Dive has been cancelled, read more here.
Another old Finnish tradition, the 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. “Winning the Wife-Carrying contest was awesome,” said Liliana Lazo, last year’s winner, adding that “it was a joyful, funny and outgoing time”
3. A Polar Parade
Starting in downtown Hancock, this event is a great time to see the Finns of the Keweenaw come and demonstrate their cultural pride. Regulars include Michigan Tech’s Pep Band, Finlandia Athletics, and Big Louie, which is “arguably the world’s biggest kicksled.” This year’s “Hankooki Heikki,” a community member honored for their perpetuation of Finnish culture in the area, is David Maki, assistant editor for the Finnish American Reporter. To learn more about “Hankooki Heikki,” head to keweenawreport.com.
4. Kicksled racing
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.
5. Arts, crafts, and food
Throughout the course of Heikinpäivä, make sure to check out the traditional artistry on display at several venues, where age-old techniques are used to create beautiful works of art. The food, too, is not to be missed, as a number of dinners and buffets will be offering delicious Finnish cuisine, and of course, a staple food group of the U.P., the inimitable pasty.Tags: David Maki, Emma Nelson, Heikinpäivä, Liliana Lazo, Polar Bear Plunge, wife carrying contest