If a person asked me what is one of the most important cultural institutions enjoyed by a great number of Finns, I’d respond: the sauna.
The sauna is more than a room where people bathe and sweat naked in 80-100 Celsius (176-212 Fahrenheit) temperatures. It’s a way of life for some Finns – so much so, that when we die some hope there will be a sauna nearby in their next life.
It’s interesting to note that the sauna is the only Finnish word that has spread and been adopted by so many languages. Well… in almost all languages except for Swedish, where it is called bastu.
Writer Maila Talvio (1871-1951) once said that Finns have been unanimous for centuries about one matter – the sauna. For as long as children are born in this far-flung land, she said such unanimity will characterize the Finns.
The sauna is a good yardstick – like the automobile in the United States – to measure how living standards have risen. Compared to about 2 million today, there were some 1.5 million saunas in 1990 versus half a million in the 1930s.
That’s a lot of saunas, considering that we’re a nation of only 5.2 million people. If a typical Finnish family has 3-4 members, it means that everyone in this country has access to a sauna.
If the sauna is a sacred place for Finns where they bathe and resolve problems and differences, could it be used to integrate foreigners? Could the future “integration association of Finland” have as its logo a sauna with people of different cultures bathing in the heat?
Finnish baseball was another uniter in the early decades of Finland’s independence. Could it serve to promote greater understanding between the Finns and different national groups?
What other elements of our culture could help foreigners understand the inhabitants of this land we call Finland and undermine suspicion?