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.

Shelf of woodcarving tools
Pekka Olson uses sun symbols in his woodcarving. The sun is an important element of the Finnish-American midsummer festival of Juhannus. Photographer: John Prusynski.

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.

A man stands on the shore of Lake Superior
Dana Nakkula, one of the volunteer firemen in Toivola who revived the Juhannus celebration in the 1970s. Dana helped build the kokko on June 22, 2018, and participated in the celebrations on June 23. Photographer: John Prusynski.

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.

Agate Beach in Toviola, Michigan.
Agate Beach, in Toivola, MI, where the Juhannus kokko is held. The sun doesn’t set until nearly 10:00 here in the middle of summer, and twilight extends for another hour. Photographer: John Prusynski.


The remains of an extinguished outdoor fire in a fire pit.
The remnants of a fire on Agate Beach, just beside the spot where the 2018 kokko was built. At the bottom right edge of the ring, you can see the a sun drawn in charcoal on a red stone—an appropriate enough image for the celebration of the midsummer! Photographer: John Prusynski.


A group of volunteers unload lumber for a bonfire from a pickup truck.
The first step in preparing the kokko is gathering materials. Unlike when the festival was first revived and participants collected wood from the shore, the wood this year was provided by local woodcutters. Here volunteers are unloading lumber onto Agate Beach. Photographer: John Prusynski.


Volunteers begin to build the protective base of a bonfire
Once lumber is acquired, it needs to be arranged into a square base. Fire chief Garry Hoekstra (right) and fieldworker Ariel Byerly (left) assist with construction. Photographer: John Prusynski.


Volunteers continue to build the bonfire.
Once the base of the kokko is around three-feet high, logs are leaned against each other to form a cone in the center. Garry Hoekstra (right) assists with starting out the central cone. Photographer: John Prusynski.


Volunteers continue to build the bonfire
More logs are gradually added to the center until the logs leaned against each other can stand on their own. Photographer: John Prusynski.


Lumber is stacked for the bonfire.
Timber is then leaned against the base of the kokko to fill out the overall pyramidal shape. Fieldworkers James P. Leary (left) and Ilja Koivisto (front center) bring more timber over to place at the base of the kokko. Photographer: John Prusynski.


Volunteers build a safety fence around the bonfire
For safety, the kokko needs to be surrounded with a temporary wire mesh fence. Dana Nakkula (left) and another volunteer hammer a stake into the ground to form one corner of the fence. This work can be challenging, since the beach is quite rocky. Photographer: John Prusynski.


Volunteers unroll the wire mesh to build a safety fence around the bonfire.
Garry Hoekstra (right) and Dana Nakkula (center) wrap wire mesh around the stakes surrounding the kokko; the mesh is subsequently tied to the stakes. It is important to maintain a safe distance from the kokko while it is burning—a few minutes after its lighting in 2018, the kokko partially collapsed, but was mostly contained by the wire mesh fence. Photographer: John Prusynski.


Two musicians warm up before the lighting of the bonfire.
Music and dance are important aspects of the Juhannus festival today, and mostly precede the lighting of the fire. In 2018, the main musical event was a Swedish-Finnish folk music group, Jepokryddona, that came all the way from Finland. But musicians from the Upper Midwest were making music as well. Finnish-American folk musicians Jaana Tuttila (left) on the nyckelharpa and Ralph Tuttila (right) on the mandolin warm up for an informal jam session. Photographer: John Prusynski.


People fill their plates with food from the potluck before the bonfire.
Participants in Juhannus bring food for the pot-luck-style meal. There were many delicious options available in 2018, including a traditional Finnish stew called mojakka. Photographer: Ariel Byerly.


A volunteer prepares to light the bonfire
By around 9:00pm, after food, music, and dancing, it is time to light the kokko. The Jepokryddona provided musical accompaniment for the lighting. Here the fire chief, Garry Hoekstra, prepares to light the kokko as festival-goers look on. Photographer: Bailey Green.

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.

The bonfire is lit and reaches towards the evening sky.
The flames rise high shortly after the kokko’s lighting, and the heat from the fire can be felt from fifteen to twenty feet away. Photographer: Bailey Green.


The bonfire still burns, but has collapsed and begins to smolder.
After an hour or two, the kokko has burned through most of its fuel, but the sunlight can still be seen on the horizon. Festival-goers often mull about on the beach, enjoying the long-lasting light and the good company until 11:00pm or later. Photographer: John Prusynski.

*John Prusynski is a graduate student in the Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic at UW-Madison. In June of 2018, John enrolled in Folklore 490: Field Methods and the Public Presentation of Folklore, and completed this photo essay as a final project in the course.