TRADITIONAL SAUNA CULTURE
You know that story about Finnish people hitting each other with birch branches in the sauna? Well, it’s true. And it’s great! The whisk in Finnish is made from young birch twigs and is an integral part of traditional Finnish sauna bathing. The idea is to beat the skin lightly with the whisk in order to stimulate blood circulation and to release the fresh and invigorating birch aroma.
There is nothing that Finns have been so unanimous about as their sauna. This unanimity has remained unbroken for centuries. It is sure to continue as long as there are children born in their native land and the invitation still comes from the porch threshold in the evening twilight: “The sauna is ready.”
SAUNA CULTURE ORIGIN
In the course of centuries, many nations have practiced sweat bath. In some places the practice died out, elsewhere it disappeared for a long time and was later picked up again. The Finnish sauna is also a sweat bath but of a distinctive kind. It has been influenced by both the Eastern and Western bath cultures.
But it has also developed some genuinely national features. The tradition of the sauna is carried out for about two thousand years. It is deeply rooted in the nation’s way of life. Sauna bathing is part of the Finnish identity just as essential as rye bread is part of the customary diet.
FINNISH SAUNA ORIGINS
At its most primitive, the sauna was probably a pit dug into a slope, with a heap of heated stones in one corner. The dugout developed into a four-cornered log hut with an earth floor and a chimneyless stove. This served as both a primitive dwelling and a bath. There was smoke in the room when the stove was being heated, but afterward, it vanished, leaving behind a smoky smell. The smoke sauna, with some modern adaptations, is nowadays becoming quite popular again. The next step in the story of the sauna was the addition of a chimney to the stove, which was then heated just once each time. Still later here came a newer type of stove which could be kept hot by continuous heating.
Today the Finnish word sauna may refer to a building or just a room with wooden walls, floor, and ceiling. There is a stove, which is heated with wood, electricity, oil or gas. The top of the stove is covered with a thick layer of natural stones, which radiate the heat to the room.
FINLAND – THE HOMELAND OF THE SAUNA
During the last 50 years, the number of saunas in Finland has grown threefold, from about half a million in 1938 to about 1.5 million in 1990. For a total population of just 5 million, this is a numerical world record of its kind.
The origins of the sauna were rural, but it gradually became part of urban lifestyles, too. Town saunas were first built in the yard outside the living area, then inside detached and terraced houses and blocks of flats, where they would be shared by all the families living in the building. In towns, there were also many public saunas. The proverbial saying “share your tobacco and tinderbox, but not your sauna or your woman” was ignored in those days. Today the principle seems to be regaining respect, as people like to have their private saunas built in individual flats, even bed-sitters, with the bathroom serving as the washing room.
A FACILITY FOR MANY FUNCTIONS
Our ancestors did not use their sauna only for bathing. They were busy with drying flax, preparing malts, curing meat and many other agricultural or domestic chores. In old times, the sauna was known as the Finnish cure or the poor man’s pharmacy. It was also the hospital where folk healers practiced their art. They administered baths and massage, and drew blood; cupping was another method to suck bad blood away. The healer woman who went from house to house was a very important person; the darkness of the sauna helped her to develop a power of suggestion over her patient.
The sauna was also a place for performing magic, mostly to do with healing or love affairs. At Whitsuntide and Midsummer, the marriageability of young women was improved by special sauna baths. The smell of herbs and birch-leaves hung in the air and the wise woman recited her spells. Sauna baths were also believed to be useful for improving virility.
In the countryside women usually gave birth in the sauna. Then, the sauna was assigned to the mother as her resting place for several weeks. There were strict rules, strongly influenced by the magic tradition, for the baby’s first bath. This was administered by the woman who attended to bathers and also served as a midwife and was believed to determine the basic features of the child’s future personality.
The sauna was also the place where the dead were prepared for their last journey. The sauna was part of Finnish people’s lives literally from cradle to grave.
CARE OF BOTH BODY AND SOUL
The basic sauna ritual is the same as it always was: warming up, sweating, and whisking, washing and cooling off. Cooling off nowadays often includes swimming. Many people like to cool off in the open air. There are also brave ones who want to roll in the snow or take a dip in the sea or lake through a hole in the ice.
A sauna bath without a birch whisk is like food without salt as the saying goes. The bather uses the whisk to beat himself lightly; this raises the blood circulation in the skin, speeds up perspiration and produces a pleasant aroma in the hot room. The whisk is normally made of young birch twigs which are aromatically superior to all other trees. Out of season this smell of summer can be reproduced by using dried or frozen whisks.
Sauna bathing not only cleans the body but also purifies the mind. The bather’s frame of mind after a leisurely relaxed sauna ritual could be best described as euphoric. It is like a rebirth: all unpleasant feelings fall away and you feel at peace with the whole world. This is what Finns mean by the care of the soul received in the sauna.
FINNISH SAUNA ETIQUETTE
The sauna is a place for physical and mental cleansing. Keep your voice low and act calmly.
Being invited to someone’s sauna is an honor. Don’t say no unless you have a really good reason.
In Finland, there is a custom to bathe naked. But if you are more comfortable in a swimming suit, that’s OK as well.
Always be polite, and don’t swear or use bad language in the sauna.
Last but not least: always remember to drink plenty of water!