Did you know that the only Finnish word that is commonly used in English is “sauna”? The Sauna is a big thing in Finland, in a country with a population of 5 million, there are estimated to be around 2-3 million sauna’s. That’s a sauna for every two people!
A sauna is a room with wooden walls and seating, which is heated up to a high temperature and kept quite dry. You sit in one for a few minutes, sweat a bit, and then take a plunge in a cold pool or take a cold shower. It is refreshing and rejuvenating. In the sauna, there is usually stones that are heated up really hot – then if you want to increase the humidity you poor water on the stones which instantly turns into steam.
Lots of us have been in a sauna before, in a hotel or health club. The chances are though, unless you have visited Finland then you haven’t done it Finnish style. For a start off, a sauna is likely to be a LOT hotter, temperatures of close to 100 degrees Celsius are common. Also, traditionally in Finland you go to the sauna naked, women and men together! If that wasn’t enough, you are sometimes given a bunch of birch branches to gently flagellate yourself (lightly hit your body with the branches) – this isn’t as bizarre as it sounds because this helps increase circulation. To cap it all off, in some hotels saunas in Finland, the tradition of the “washing lady” survives – this is exactly what it sounds like as the woman takes care of washing you. I read a wonderful story of a group of American businessmen who went to a hotel sauna in Finland, wearing swimming trunks to preserve their modesty. The washer woman came in and peremptorily announced to one of them, “you first, take off your underpants”. How mortified he must have been!
Nowadays electric saunas are quite common, but traditionally there are two types of saunas in Finland, both heated with wood but one with a chimney and one without. The one without the chimney is a “savusauna” or smoke sauna in English. In a savusauna, the room is heated up really hot and then most of the smoke let out. The burning embers continue to heat the sauna, but the gentle smell of woodsmoke lingers, lending a lovely rustic aroma to the sauna. This sounds amazing, I’d love to try it.
History of the Sauna
The origins of the Sauna, or “sweat bathing” as it used to be known, is lost to history. What we do know however is that during the middle ages, many countries in Europe had some form of sweat bathing tradition. In most countries, these places were linked to low morals and poor health, with prostitution been commonly associated with them too. Because of this, during the Reformation in Europe, sweat bathing was stamped out in most countries was stamped out.
Finland however, refused to give up their sauna tradition. Saunas survived and flourished in Finland perhaps in part because they took on a kind of religious reverence – perhaps because of this wonderful Finnish folktale of the devil and the farmer – which stopped the sauna in Finland from descending into corruption as it did elsewhere. In Finland, the sauna was a very ingrained part of the country’s culture, it was truly a multi-functional place. Farmers would use their sauna for smoking meats and drying malts, and it was also used as an infirmary. Minor operations took place in the sauna, women gave birth in saunas and “sweating” was thought to be a good remedy for minor ailments. Use of saunas as an infirmary actually made a lot of sense, as the dry heat and clean conditions stopped the spread of germs. Even today, there are people alive in Finland who were born in a sauna.
The sauna declined in popularity later in the 19th century, as more modern forms of bathing arrived on the scene and improvements were made in medicine. Saunas fell into disrepair and weren’t fixed, and few new ones were built. It wasn’t until World War II that this decline was reversed. Theatres, restaurants and other forms of entertainment were closed down, and saunas were one of the only forms of entertainment Finns had. Soldiers fixed up old saunas as they passed by, and they were again used for a time as an infirmary. During the war, a group of sauna enthusiasts got together and came up with a plan to save sauna culture. As a result of this the Finnish Sauna Society was founded, and after the war the popularity of saunas exploded. It has been increasing in popularity ever since and Finns have exported their love of saunas round the world. Today, they are found everywhere from city apartments to country cottages. There’s even a sauna in a Burger King outlet in Helsinki!
So if you are in Finland sometime, try out the sauna culture. Sit in the sauna, sweat and soak in the heat, then go out and jump into an icy lake. Then repeat. Try to enjoy it!
The farmer, the devil and the sauna
In Finland, the sauna always received reverential treatment, and never descended to the debauchery and corruption that was rife in other countries. I don’t know if this lovely Finnish folk tale has anything to do with it, but either way it is a great story.
Once upon a time in the far north, there lived a farmer who loved the sauna. Every day he would light the fire in the sauna, stoke it up until it was really hot and then after letting most of the smoke escape, he would call his family to tell them the sauna was ready. They would all strip off and run into the sauna quickly, because it was very cold outside. The smell of the wood smoke lingered in the air, the soft aroma enhancing the pleasant experience. This is as it was on many farms all across Finland, but this farmer liked his sauna hotter than the rest of his family. Very soon, they would run out of the sauna and plunge into the icy lake to cool off. The farmer just poured more water onto the hot stones, making the sauna even hotter and more humid. Before long, word got out to the neighbouring farms and villages of the farmer who liked his sauna hotter than anyone else. Many brave men tried to stand the heat, but before long it was too much for them as well.
Now one day, the Devil heard about this farmer who liked the heat. He laughed, a wicked evil laugh, and said to his imps, “bring me this foolish farmer and let us see how he likes the fires of hell!”
Dutifully, the imps went and found the farmer, and this brave man agreed to accompany them to Hell. The devil ordered a great fire to be lit, greater than any they had had before, to welcome the farmer to Hell. After the farmer had endured the fires of damnation for a while, the Devil asked him how he liked his domain. The farmer answered that he liked it very much, but could they make it hotter for him. The devil, taken aback, obliged. “Hotter!” he said. “Lets see how this impudent little farmer copes with the fiery furnace. Soon his skin will be burned to a crisp and his bones will be piles of ash.”
The hotter it became however, the more the farmer enjoyed it. The Devil desperately urged his imps to make the fire hotter and hotter, until even he got hardly bear it. The farmer however smiled throughout the ordeal. The devil, screaming with rage and embarrassment, cast him out and ordered him to never come back to Hell. Thus the farmer learned how to avoid Hell, and from that day forward taught this lesson to all his countrymen. And so it came to pass that Finns saw the sauna as a place of sanctuary and a way to forever escape the Devil’s clutches.