Sustaining Scandinavian Folk Arts in the Upper Midwest
Kokko and Aurinko: A Finnish-American Juhannus Festival
by John Prusynski*
The Upper Peninsula of Michigan can be a cold, dark place at times. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the Finnish-American immigrants who came to this area brought with them traditions of warmth and light.
Local artist Pekka Olson, after explaining the Finnish word for sauna steam (löyly), follows this exemplar of warmth with an exemplar of light: “Another Finnish word that I like is aurinko. Aurinko means sun, and I make some sun symbols.” And at no time of year is the sun on display longer and more prominently than at midsummer, when Finnish-Americans celebrate the Juhannus festival by building a giant bonfire known as a kokko.
The images you’ll see below document the building of the 2018 Juhannus kokko at Agate Beach in Toivola, MI from the unloading of wood onto the beach on Friday, June 22 to its smoldering embers after the festivities end on Saturday night, June 23. This kokko is made of wood, like all of the kokkos since the festival’s revival in the 1970s.
Several decades prior, the bonfire had been built of tires, as festival participant Linda Neumann describes: “They would do a big ol’ stack of tires on the beach and set fire to it, and it’d burn for about a week. . . . The smoke’d go all the way across the lake.”
Eventually, the tradition of setting tires on fire was abandoned. Dana Nakkula, former fire chief himself, explains how the Toivola Volunteer Fire Department “kinda reignited the whole thing”: “A couple of guys got together . . . and they would look at the pictures of the tire burning and so forth, and they decided, well, ‘why don’t we get involved and do something like that.’ ” But it wasn’t easy setting up the kokko at the beginning: “We started very small, with boats, getting driftwood off the beach, and piling it up and burning it like we are now.” Garry Hoekstra, the current fire chief, says that “It took ’em all day to do it.”
The celebration has since grown, and in addition to the lighting of the kokko, there is also music, dancing, and food. The 2017 Juhannus was especially big in celebration of the 100th birthday of Finland, and the 125th birthday of Toivola. Although the crowd size was down a little bit in 2018, it was clear that attendees still enjoyed the potluck, the music and dance offered by the Jepokryddona folk music group (who came all they way from Finland), and, certainly not least, the warmth and light of the kokko in the setting midsummer sun.
As fieldworkers who had been visiting traditional artists from throughout the Keweenaw Peninsula, we recognized a number of local artists who had come to celebrate Juhannus at Agate Beach; it was clear that this festival is an important part of the cultural life of the area. Speaking with those community members who have helped to re-establish the tradition, such as Dana Nakkula, revealed a pride not only in the community’s Finnish-American heritage, but in their resilience and perseverance—perhaps to put it in the Finnish-American way, their sisu.