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Stateside Podcast: Want snow? Heikki Lunta delivers

Michigan's Upper Peninsula can get buried in snow during the winter. Some simply thank Mother Nature. Others use meteorology to explain it all. But to some members of the Finnish-American community in the Hancock area, the snow is because of Heikki Lunta.

The deity's origins go back, not to a historic era of Finland, but to 1970 in the U.P.'s Keewenaw Penninsula. That winter, Atlantic Mine, a copper mining community, was gearing up to host a major snowmobile race. The highly-anticipated event was advertised throughout the U.P., Wisconsin and Minnesota. But some worried the minimal snowfall would prevent the race from happening. David Riutta, a radio station ad-salesman, was told to write a song about how there was still fun to be had at the event, even if the race itself had to be cancelled.

“Dave was told to do this, and told that he had about a lunch break worth of time to do it,” Hilary-Joy Virtanen, an Associate Professor of Finnish & Nordic Studies at Finlandia University, said. “So he ran off in his lunch break, borrowed a guitar, and [used] the theme to. . . 'A Place in France.' That was the tune he used, basically, to write what came to be known as 'Heikki Lunta’s Snow Dance Song.'”

Virtanen, who wrote her masters’ thesis on the origins and traditions surrounding Heikki Lunta, said that some of the legend's influences come from Sámi culture. Before the introduction of Christianity to Finnish and Sámi culture, both groups were often accused of being able to control the weather, because their traditional stories carried elements of wizardry and shamanism.

While there is no official depiction of Heikki Lunta, Virtanen said that common elements include a beard, a flannel, a birch bark-woven backpack, and a wreath made of cedar bows, with snowflakes suspended with wires above the wreath. The costume blends aspects of both U.P. culture and Finnish culture.

Today, Heikki Lunta is one of three local “Heikkis” celebrated in a festival during the last weekend of January. Called Heikinpäivä, the festival honors Heikki Lunta as well as Bishop Henry of Finland, an early Christianizer in the country. The community also names a Hancock Heikki, or Hankookin Heikki. The honorary Heikki is recognized as an individual who has helped uplift the local Finnish-American community. Other festivities include a parade of Finnish folklore characters, traditional dances and music, and a wife-carrying competition.

"We do a lot of the kind of the zany kind of sports that Finns are known for in their festivals too," Virtanen said, "and we have it wrapped up as a very big celebration of Finnish culture in the midwinter to keep us from getting our winter blues."

GUEST:

  • Hilary-Joy Virtanen, Associate Professor of Finnish & Nordic Studies at Finlandia University, a private Lutheran university in Hancock, Michigan

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Music in this episode by Blue Dot Sessions.

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Ronia Cabansag is a producer for Stateside. She comes to Michigan Radio from Eastern Michigan University, where she earned a BS in Media Studies & Journalism and English Linguistics with a minor in Computer Science.
Dan Netter joined the Stateside team as an intern in May 2022 and is a senior at Michigan State University studying Journalism and Social Relations & Policy.