If a person asked me to say what is one of the most important pillars of Finnish culture, 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, in fact, that some hope there will be a sauna in heaven or hell when they die.
It’s interesting to note that sauna is the only Finnish word that has spread and been adopted by so many foreign 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 U.S. – to measure how living standards have risen in this country. Compared to about 2 million today, there were in 1990 some 1.5 million saunas versus half a million in the 1930s.
That’s a lot of saunas, considering that Finland is only a nation of 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.
We have two saunas: one at home and the summerhouse. Even so, my ultimate dream is to have four: a smoke sauna to celebrate special occasions like Christmas; a wood-burning and electric sauna in the country; and an electric sauna in the city.
The sauna-bathing ritual has changed very little over time. The only matter that has changed during the past century is the technology we use to heat the stones. While most saunas are electric, few will disagree that the best steam comes from stones heated by deciduous trees like birch.
Who knows what the future may bring. If the Japanese have invented “air-conditioned” shirts, I’m certain that it’s only a matter of time when a Finn will invent a sauna that can be worn like a suit.
Who we are
If sauna is the DNA of Finnish culture, what does it reveal about who the Finns are and where they are heading as a people?
In order to answer the question, we’d have to know what Finns do inside a sauna.
For a foreigner, the sauna must appear like a very unusual ritual. Imagine inviting guests over and then undressing and bathing together. In some cultures this would be unimaginable, especially in those where nudity is a taboo.
You’d better have a good excuse if you come to Finland and turn down an invitation to bathe in a sauna. Bathing together is a sort of rites of passage that crowns or reinforces familial bonds or friendship between two people. Refusing to go to sauna is like not accepting a person’s friendship.
The sauna has played many important roles in Finnish culture. In the past it was a panacea for all cures and where shamans took care of their patients. Apart from its healing properties, the sauna was even believed to improve virility and make women more marriageable.
In the countryside, births usually took place in the sauna. Even people that were about to embark onto the land of death prepared for such a journey in the sauna.
The Finnish Sauna Society (Suomen Saunaseura), one of the ultimate authorities on the sweat bath, says that one should behave in the sauna like in church. In other words: no blasphemy, excessive drinking or having sex, even if these matters do occur.
Some agree that the best time for Finns to make love is on Saturday night after a sauna bath.
I’m convinced that there would be fewer wars if the world could bathe inside an enormous sauna.
While the Finnish sweat bath is a sacred place where a person relaxes and speaks as little as possible, many problems have been solved inside its steam-hot walls. Imagine bathing, talking over and resolving an issue with a friend as opposed to facing him in an impersonal office wearing a suit?
Bathing with others reminds us that we are social animals. So never underestimate the magic and important role the sauna plays between people.
Possibly it’s this very magic that makes us happy every time we enter a room heated by stones, allowing us to enjoy one of the greatest fringe benefits that life has to offer.