On the last day of the Finnish heritage festival at Bryant Park near the Lake Worth Beach lagoon, men are hoisting their female partners over their shoulders for a traditional wife-carrying contest, sprinting through an obstacle course on their way toward the “FINNISH” line.
For three days, hundreds of people of Finnish descent from across Florida and several other states flock here to celebrate their native tongue and culture at the Midnight Sun Festival.
The city has one of the world's largest Finnish populations outside of Finland. You could always spot the country's blue cross flag on homes and businesses but there’s been a steep population decline in recent years.
“This is kind of easy peasy,” said Jan “Mika” Pennanen, a local realtor who emcees the annual event. “We're a big group of people putting this show together. This keeps the flock still flying.”
Pennanen landed U.S. residency through the federal government's green card lottery and moved to Lake in the early 1990s. He takes honor in entertaining seasonal snowbirds and Finnish retirees from Lake Worth Beach, Lantana, and Hypoluxo.
“Festival like this kind of keeps us, you know, not forgetting where we come from and who we are and what we are,” Mika said.
Members in the Finnish community say the festival attract people to their culture, which helps preserve its past. It's their home away from home.
The festival's name, the “Midnight Sun” — which used to be called Finlandia Days — pays tribute to a phenomenon in the northernmost region of the European nation, where daylight lingers all day and night for months during the summer.
The two Finnish stone monuments at Bryant Park are a reminder of Finnish contributions to the city. One honors World War II veterans; the other is a pair of geese, migrating birds commemorating the influx of immigrants from Finland.
The $50,000 bronze and granite sculpture was donated to the city in the mid 1980s by the late Thor Soderholm, a long-time resident. It’s a replica of the one in his hometown in Hanko, Finland. People at the festival took photos in front of it because it honors the many immigrants who left the subzero weather in the arctic north and came to Florida's year-round warmth.
The festival was founded by former Lake Worth mayor David Hinsa, a Finnish-American.
Tiina Rogers, President of the Midnight Sun Festival, says the annual cultural and live music event began 40 years ago and serves as a meeting place for the once thriving Finnish community.
“Back in the old days [early 1900's] when the wealthy people from up north came to build their buildings up and down Palm Beach and West Palm Beach, Finnish carpenters and house wives and cooks, they came down with them,” Rogers said. “And they couldn't afford to live in Palm Beach, so they started to build in Lake Worth.”
Rogers arrived 30 years ago and married into an American family. She said the Finnish immigrants built their businesses in the area as a form of necessity.
“And most of them didn't speak too good English, so then they built their own community so they can have all the services in Finnish,” said Rogers, who noted that newly created churches, clubs, hair salons and bakeries catered to the immigrant group.
Finnish families, many of whom had dual passports, eventually assimilated — married into American society or moved back to Finland or grew older as their birth rates fell, according to documents from the Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
The Honorary Consulate of Finland Peter Makila told WLRN he estimates the concentration of Finns in Lake Worth and surrounding areas to be between 5,000 to 7,000 permanent residents, down from around 12,000 from more than 30 years ago. And during the tourist season, it often rose to 30,000.
At the outdoor festival, people mingled around and sipped on the national Long Drink — a gin mixed with flavored soda. And listened to Finnish tango singer Arja Koriseva.
In the middle of the open-dance floor, hips swayed to the sound of Finnish tango, where the stereotypically quiet Finns danced close and intimate, pacing to the rhythm of an accordion instead of the Argentine bandoneon. FINtango is a distinct, ballroom style variation of Argentine tango, made popular in wartime Finland in the early 1900s.
Hundreds of thousands of Finns, at the time, migrated to America, seeking economic prosperity in the midwest, north and the south.
At the family-owned Palm Beach Bakery and Cafe in Lantana, you hear Finnish and English spoken daily. It's a place wrapped in nostalgia and has been the Nordic meeting spot for more than 25 years, with its Finnish-language newspapers comforting Finland-born U.S.-naturalized citizens. The cafe is a 10-minute drive from Bryant park. The owner, Mike Vaskivuo, said regulars here eat Finnish meat pies—- the Lihapiirakka look like baked empanadas. Or customers would munch on an open-faced smoked salmon sandwich on dark sourdough rye bread.
But coffee and a variety of pastries are the taste of choice for Finns, including the sweet Pulla, a braided cardamom-spiced bread with crunchy almonds on top.
“It’s Pullapitko. Long sweet bread. So a lot of people actually think it's challah bread but it’s actually sweet bread,” Vaskivuo said. “Pulla and coffee. I don’t know if you know the stat but we consume the most coffee per capita in the whole world. Hot and black.”
Vaskivuo is a former professional hockey player who played for teams in Finland and the U.S. Born in Finland, he was raised in Lake Worth. His father, Jouko Vaskivuo, passed down his baking business — and his Finnish culture.
“I try to represent Finland as much as I can. I would say here, the younger community here, they’re very Americanized. They don’t speak Finnish,” Mike Vaskivuo said. “I almost have more in common with their older parents. We all have the ‘Sisu’. We always carry that with us in our hearts.”
Sisu is a Finnish philosophical concept meaning determination or resilience. Vaskivuo believes Sisu keeps his business and culture going.
“Sisu is about never giving up and always fighting no matter how difficult the times or the obstacle ahead,” says Vaskivuo, just before handling a wave of Finns and non-Finns streaming into the small shop. “We’re a small nation and we’re already the underdog, so you gotta believe in something. You can’t be a pushover.”
I can feel the Sisu in the air at the Midnight Sun Festival, from the Finnish community club members, small businesses, St. Andrew's Lutheran Church members and the Finnish-American Village, a rest for Finns.
Kaija Kalervo, 75, is the former president of the American Finnish Club. She said during the heyday, Lake Worth felt “homey.”
“Everyone knew each other and all that,” Kalervo said. “We are honest, hard workers. I always said the good God had given me your hands seven days a week, 24 hours a day. I can use it. I can use that and preserve my heritage and really be good for the community.”
Pepe Tiilikka, 33, agrees. Part of the festival staff, he moved from Finland when he was 6 years old and said this is his way of “trying to keep the culture alive” by making the festival feel like a “a quick trip to Finland.”
Pop-rock singer Hanna Pakarinen serenaded the Finns before she headed back to Helsinki, Finland. Her hometown, Lappeenranta, is the sister city of Lake Worth Beach.
“I think it’s a great way to introduce Finnish culture to American people,” Pakarinen said.
But Tinna Rogers said the community still needs a little more “sisu” to keep the ethnic Finnish heritage going in Lake Worth Beach.
The sunny festival, with its Fintango dancing and quirky wife-carrying contest, serves as a reminder of that determination.
“It's the Finnish heritage. Our food is different. We are stubborn, different kind of people, “ Rogers said. “So we want to keep that alive.”