Finnish Sauna Traditions
Finnish Sauna Traditions
When bathing houses started to emerge across Europe several thousands of years ago, the current Finland territories weren‘t much of an exception. The bathing houses and their customs in these lands haven‘t been well documented by historians or chronicles – unlike in some other European countries. However, it was in Finland where bathing traditions rooted so deeply into the daily lives of people, that they have become a part of the national culture by today. Plenty of people around the world know the benefits of Finnish sauna but have you ever asked yourself what the typical traditions that flourish there actually are?
Being a natural part of Finnish culture, going to sauna has a well-defined order of steps. First, you prepare yourself for sauna by taking a shower. Then you join your family or a group of other males or females depending on your gender for the heat room. You heat yourself up there, have a massage with the birch twigs if it is summer time, and then cool yourself down by taking a cold shower. If you are invited to sauna by your Finnish friends or business partners, you will quickly see that sauna serves as a place to socialize, to relax and discuss important issues.
The Roots of Finnish Sauna Traditions
For ages out of number, sauna has been an inseparable part of the lives of Finnish people and their ancestors. One of the reasons for that must be sauna‘s versatility – for people living so far in the north, sauna was a vitally important source of hot water and heat, especially in deep and cold winters. They would warm themselves up there, eat, take care of their hygiene and even give birth. Giving birth in a sauna was very common and acceptable because of the sterility that was created by constant fuming and steaming. Of course, during the birth-giving, saunas weren‘t heated to the temperature unnatural for humans. Even nowadays you still can find people who were born in sauna (even though most probably it will not be the most common case for the coming generations).
In medieval times, Finns still actively used saunas for washing and hygiene purposes, even though the culture of bathing had almost disappeared in most parts of the rest of Europe.
From Remote Ages to Modern Days
No wonder that because of particularly deep traditions, sauna has well established to the national Finnish culture. It is counted today that there are 2 million saunas per 5,3 million people in Finland. It means that there was built one sauna for less than three persons! Traditionally, and because of practical aspect, saunas are built on the river banks, near the lakes in the forests; they belong to private summer houses or cottages. However, you can find saunas almost everywhere these days: they are common in large apartment buildings, private houses in the city and hotels. It is usual that large enterprises and governmental institutions have their own saunas, too which they can offer for their workers. Even the president and the prime minister of the country have their own official saunas.
According to the traditions, a sauna is heated by burning wood. If a sauna has a chimney, the smoke will leave the main room through it. However, it is possible that there is no chimney, thus, while the wood burns, the smoke travels through the room to the open door. This particular type of sauna – so-called smoke sauna – is considered to be the original type of Finnish bathhouse and Finns believe it is the best. The burning wood and its ember give a unique wood smoke smell to the room.
The Process of Finnish Sauna
The process of going to Finnish sauna does not differ considerably from other types of sauna. First of all, a person is expected to wash carefully. There usually is a separate room with showers for that where you can also leave your clothes and shoes. Then you go into a small room where the heat is preserved. You sit or lie on a wooden bench – the closer it is to the roof, the hotter it will be.
The temperature at Finnish sauna can reach even 100 °C but usually, it is around 70 – 80 °C. You will always find a basket with heated rocks in a Finnish sauna. When you feel you need more heat, you can pour some water on them. The rocks will slightly increase the temperature in the room and will produce steam which will increase the humidity in the sauna.
If you happen to enjoy Finnish sauna in summer, it is very common to have a broom of birch twigs for a massage, the so-called vihta in the Finnish language. Vihta is used by gently (read: truly gently!) beating yourself or your partner in sauna. Such massage leaves the skin feeling very soft and toned.
Icy Water Bath
In winter, it is common in Finland to cool yourself down by rolling in the snow after the sauna. Because snow is no rarity in Finland, people like to take advantage of it and experience the extreme contrast of cold and hot. If sauna has been built near the water, i.e. a lake or a river, most probably the visitors of the sauna will jump into the icy water, even if it is the very middle of the winter. If the surface of the lake or river had frozen by then, Finns would cut a nice square hole in the ice specifically for the bathing after sauna purposes.
For foreigners or for those who feel such hot-cold contrast might be too extreme for them, they can take a cold shower in the sauna. In any case, cooling down after some time spent in the heat room, is another essential part of Finnish sauna. With icy water bath you have finished your first round of Finnish sauna – how many more there will be, depends on you, but usually more than three are recommended only for those who are used to sauna procedures and go there regularly.
The Customs of Visiting Sauna in Finland
Finns themselves claim that the customs of visiting sauna are so natural for them that they get a little bit confused when they realize they need to explain how to behave to foreigners. However, there are some customs to acknowledge. For example, there exists a certain order of going to sauna. Men and women usually go to sauna separately – and they do that completely naked. Many foreigners find it embarrassing, especially when going to a Finnish sauna for the first time. However, Finns go to sauna not to stare at each other but to relax their bodies and mind. If you feel very uncomfortable sitting there with your butt naked, you can take a towel with you. However, keep in mind that in some public saunas in Finland it is forbidden to cover yourself solely for health reasons.
It is also common that if there are several families attending an event where sauna is organized as a part of the activities, families go in together. That applies only when kids are little – when they grow to teenagers they usually join separate groups of men or women.
What Is Beyond the Surface of Finnish Sauna?
Just like in Russian culture, sauna for Finns is a place where they can relax and socialize. This aspect is particularly important in Finnish culture where people tend to be reserved and respect each other‘s “private space“ enormously. Things are different in sauna – here you can talk to strangers with no discomfort, discuss business or political matters and make new acquaintances. Even in the army, when soldiers and officials happen to be in the same sauna, there are no rankings and titles – everyone becomes equal in sauna.
If you travel to Finland for business, it is very common to be invited to sauna by your business partner. It is a very well-established practice in Finland, even though it might look quite surprising for some foreigners, especially for the first time. Nevertheless, Finns themselves recommend taking a chance of such an offer because you can experience a true Finnish sauna which can leave you with the best memories about the Finnish tradition.
Finns have particularly deep traditions of sauna which have become a part of their national cultural heritage. Going to Finnish sauna starts with taking a shower, then spending some time in the heat room and finally cooling yourself down – by rolling in the snow or diving into the icy water in a lake or a river nearby. Sauna in Finland is a very common thing and has a social aspect, too – people can relax in sauna and talk freely with each other without otherwise visible social barriers. Finnish sauna definitely is something that every foreigner is encouraged to try.