Somehow this week, on Thursday, there is a public holiday in Finland. We just had Vappu (May Day), so I was a little taken aback that there was another holiday so soon. I thought the next one would be Juhannus (Midsummer).
I don’t remember Helatorstai in my previous stays in Finland. So, I did a little research.
Helatorstai is actually Ascension Day, celebrating the return to heaven of Jesus. Having left my Lutheran roots for more non denominational waters many years ago, I am not surprised I didn’t know this. It is a day on the church calendar of the more mainline denominations (Catholic, Anglican).
I also was not aware of the holiday because, unlike the “godless” Europeans, who universally celebrate it, we “Christian” Americans totally ignore it. Figures.
Indeed, my German colleague told me today that not only is tomorrow Ascension Day in his country, it his Father’s Day. He told some story of the men walking around pulling wagons of meat and beer.
It’s not that I didn’t believe him, but I checked it out. Indeed, the German guys go out into the woods with “party wagons”.
Helatorstai is celebrated 40 days after Easter, when the book of Acts tells us Jesus ascended to His Father after His resurrection. Like Easter, the day changes every year. This year it is May 17. Last year Helatorstai fell on June 2. Next year it will be on May 9. In the 40 days between Easter and Ascension Day Jesus appeared and talked with many, according to the Bible and Christian tradition.
Thus, the feast day is as old as the hills. It used to be quite important in Finland, even until the 19th century, especially among farmers.
It was a time to apparently walk through the fields and pray for a good harvest. Now it seems to be just a day off, a costly one for employers, according to the Helsinki daily newspaper, The Sanomat.
There was an old folk saying in Finland, when translated, seems to say that the “the day is so holy the grass is not very strong”. I presume there are a lot of meanings for this proverb.
It could be an allusion to the Scriptures which note that all men wither like grass; thus, there is a focus on eternity on this day. Or it could go back to the Rogation Days (rogere meaning “to ask” in Latin) which began in fifth century Europe. Here people fasted and prayed for their agriculture, eating only grass.
These became known as “Grass Days”. Perhaps the grass was weak because the people were eating it!
I don’t intend to fast on Helatorstai. In fact, I bought myself a special treat of meat since I intend to be holed up all in my home, as nothing will be open.
So Hyvää helatorstaita!