Laskiainen 2016: the flax and the furious

The Laskiainen Sliding Festival in Palo is an annual Finnish mid-winter tradition. (PHOTO: Screenshot from Andrew Krueger YouTube video)

The Laskiainen Sliding Festival in Palo is an annual Finnish mid-winter tradition. (PHOTO: Screenshot from Andrew Krueger YouTube video)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

(The complete Laskiainen schedule is at the bottom of this post)

The winter doldrums of Northern Minnesota now roll over us with workmanlike routine. Don hats and gloves. Scrape the windshield. Warm up the car. Walk like a penguin. Repeat.

Perhaps small comfort, but true the same, is how for millennia these same cold squalls blowing out of the north have whipped the hair and blushed the faces of all humans who call this place home. New people; old wind.

How wonderful, then, to know that no matter the temperature today, this frigid season has already begun to break. The evidence comes from people who know winter well: the Finns. That’s right, Laskiainen is coming.

Laskiainen is the Finnish sliding festival held the first weekend of every February in the backroads Iron Range location of Palo, Minnesota, a haven for Finnish-American settlement a century ago. Based on an ancient celebration of “Shrove Tuesday,” the literal translation of what amounts to Finnish Mardi Gras, Laskiainen commemorates a change in season.

Now you might say that there’s no way it’s spring yet, and you’d be right. But the days are getting longer now and this time of year is when winter weary Finns would begin to change what they do. Women would stop spinning and start weaving. Men would tie fish nets for waters still frozen. Later sunsets meant more time for work that required light, itself a joyous occasion for those trapped in the dark nights of late December.

Laskiainen means breaking free of the isolation of winter, which Finns celebrated with big community gatherings of food and sliding. Curious traditions cropped up, including the one most famous to Laskiainen lore: a superstition tied to a toboggan. As legend has it, every man, woman and child would slide down a hill into an open field. Whoever slid the furthest would be blessed with the finest crop of flax.

In Minnesota, where flax is a rarity, Finnish immigrants came to apply the tradition to all crops, including the Finnish-American staple of potatoes, which were often the only thing to grow well in the rough soil of the Iron Range. This life was important, for Finns were blacklisted from Iron Range mines for union organizing in the early 20th Century. Rather than leave, they stuck it out in rural places just outside Iron Range cities.

Finns quickly adopted old Laskiainen traditions when they came to America. Several of these celebrations around the region were turned into formal events involving all Iron Ranger ethnic groups in 1937. Of these, only the Palo Laskiainen remains in operation, the longest running ethnic festival in Minnesota. You can still ride a whip sled called the “vipu kelkko” and devour steaming bowls of fish or beef stew called 

Like many Iron Rangers, my ethnic heritage is a blend of many nationalities. Yet I always feel special affection for the part of me that hails from Finland. There were many influences on Iron Range culture, to be sure. Yet the Finns would rightly be called a necessary catalyst in creating fairness for workers and cultivating a culture able to endure not just one winter, but many.

That’s what people of all backgrounds can celebrate at Laskiainen next weekend, Feb. 5-7 at the Loon Lake Community Center in Palo, Minnesota. I’ll be bringing my traveling variety program, the Great Northern Radio Show, to nearby Aurora in honor of Laskiainen. We’ll broadcast live from the Mesabi East High School auditorium from 5-7 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 6. You can hear that broadcast locally on 91.7 KAXE.

Better yet, make plans to attend the live broadcast after a full day of sliding (and eating, and sliding some more) at Laskiainen. Something as simple as racing down an icy toboggan run can remind us all of how our ancestors overcame challenges even more daunting than the ones we face today.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


Laskiainen 2016 Schedule of Events

(All events held at or near Loon Lake Community Center on Highway 100 in Palo, unless indicated otherwise)

Friday, Feb. 5, 2016

6-10 p.m., Queen’s Ball and Coronation, ($5 adults, $3 students) featuring Todd Eckart and his band

Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016

Sliding all day

7:30-11 a.m., Kropsu Breakfast

9 a.m.- 4 p.m., Girls and Boys Pony League Basketball Games

9 a.m.-4 p.m., Laskiainen Events

  • Old Co-op Theater strolling musicians
  • Artisans and Demonstrators in Laskiainen Tradition
  • Tori (marketplace)
  • Bakery (Finnish breads)
  • Museum

10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sleigh/Carriage rides (free)

noon-4 p.m., Mojakka (beef stew) or sloppy joes

4 p.m., doors open for Great Northern Radio Show’s special Laskiainen episode at Mesabi East H.S. auditorium in Aurora. Live broadcast 5-7 p.m. ($10 adults, free for all children and students)

6 p.m., “Old Timers” Basketball Game

7:30 p.m. Laskiainen Lakers Basketball Game

Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016

Sliding all day

8-10 a.m., Piggies and Pancake Breakfast

10-11 a.m., Ecumenical Church Service

10 a.m.-4 p.m., Artisans and Demonstrators in Laskiainen Tradition

  • The Techniques of Trapping by John Altman
  • The Black Powder Gun by Doug Mackey
  • Clay to Bronze Sculptures by Lanny Johnson
  • The Making of a Kayak by Isaac Saarberg
  • Wild Rice Making by Keith and Mike Radtke
  • The Art of Card Weaving by Doug Mackey
  • The History of Esko and Thomson Township (the Finns) by Rodney Ikola
  • Custom Leather Works by Steve Carlson
  • Tori (marketplace)
  • Museum

10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sleigh/Carriage Rides (free)

11 a.m.-4 p.m., Pea Soup Dinner and Bakery (Finnish breads)

1:15 p.m., Introduction of the Royal Court

1:30 p.m., Concert featuring folk bluegrass group Alabaster Falls (tickets $5 adults, $3 students)

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