Every March 16 when I was a teen, my mother and I went all out. We strung streamers in Nile green and royal purple from doorways. We feasted on liver pudding, cranberry whip and other Finnish delicacies. We exchanged homemade greeting cards. We donned purple and green ribbons; clothing in that color combination was hard to come by in the 1970s. I made posters for the wall, grasshoppers holding signs that read, “Hoppy St. Urhoʼs Day.ˮ
I carried my celebrations over to school. Shoving my Finnish heritage in the face of anyone who stood near was one way I tried to explain myself. I knew I was not like others; St. Urhoʼs Day gave me opportunity to celebrate my being different, to pretend this quality was rooted in my ethnic heritage. The rest of the time, I used being the best-ever church boy as lid and lever to repress any hint that I was attracted to the “wrongˮ gender. I did not wish to know this about myself.
At the Christian college I attended I roomed with a man who was as rabidly Swiss as I was Finnish. We got into a knock-down-drag-out wrestling match when he stole my Finnish flag. On March 16 I made a big poster, “Proud to be Finnish,ˮ and plastered it over his bed.
When my children were born, I often sang them the Finnish lullaby my mother sang to me. Theyʼd have to get used to having a father who was not run-of-the-mill. I hoped theyʼd like liver. And church. My wife and I took them to Sunday School, Sunday services, Wednesday night prayer meetings and more.
From my earliest years, religion had helped me make sense of life, of who I was, where I was headed. My religious faith and Finnish heritage were part of me, blood and bone.
No one was more surprised than me when I came out in middle age, in mid-marriage, in the midst of the religious, conservative rural Midwest. Identifying as gay helped me understand why I had felt so different all my life. This was insight of a depth not offered by my ethnic background or religious upbringing.
Who was I? How was I to know? One after another, I watched the touchstones of my life topple.
Down went my identity as husband, every-day father to my children, church leader, church member, employed professional, good son, beloved brother, tacit believer in the legal system, qualified renter, upstanding citizen, acceptable person.
I came to see myself in new ways, as a member of an oppressed minority, part of a creative wellspring of people who as long as life have lived on the fringe, outside the pale, and added to the richness and texture of society. This on a good day. Some mornings I swallowed whole the message that I was outcast, other, a worthless piece of crap, repulsive, dirty, loser, liar, sick-o, sinner, a threat to my children.
Talk about identity crisis.
Who am I, anyway? Who are you? Are we all and only what and who we say we are, who others tell us we are? What comprises our identity? I live these questions every day—Sundays, Wednesday nights and March 16 included.
I never thought Iʼd identity as anything other than Christian, never dreamed Iʼd live outside the churchʼs embrace, yet I have developed a deep mistrust of organized religion. I thought my Finnish roots would always be front and center. But itʼs been a long time since I made liver pudding, waved the white flag with the light blue cross, bought another grasshopper figurine.
According to legend, St. Urho drove the grasshoppers out of the vineyards of Finland, saving the grape harvest and securing a name for himself. In Menaga, Minnesota stands a huge statue of the fearsome saint, a grasshopper speared on his pitchfork. I have often enough made pilgrimage there. The town holds an annual St. Urhoʼs Day festival parade. Some participants dress up like the saint; others go as grasshoppers.
Saint Urhoʼs story parallels that of Patrick, who reputedly drove the snakes out of Ireland, and for good reason. Folks in northern Minnesota dreamed up the legend of St. Urho as a kind of spoof. Why should the Irish have all the fun? The story caught on—any excuse for a party, for ethnic pride, for another mid-March celebration in a cold climate.
Even as Iʼm wearing my purple and green sweater this March 16, Iʼll wonder to what degree St. Urho and I are constituted of the same stuff. How real are we? How useful the identities we attach to ourselves? How long-lasting?
This essay appeared in The Community Letter, March 2011