The sauna in Finland is as old as Methuselah. In a country of some 5 million people there are 3 million saunas. That’s roughly one per household. A public sauna is a good substitute if for some reason you don’t own one. Saturday nights for us were always sauna night. I can vividly recall going to a public sauna with my family. Dad took along a bottle of light ale and some fresh herrings to smoke in the sauna stove while we sat on the wooden bench and thrashed our back, chest, arms and legs with the birch vasta (bunch of birch leaves). Sauna towels are rough, almost like hessian. As you scrub yourself dry, the dead skin cells come off in rolls. The feeling of wellbeing, freshness and tingling skin is like no other bathing experience. The smell of smoking fish was mouth watering. Back then in the dark ages all saunas were wood fired. Even more special than the tasty fish was the sip of ale we were allowed to have to wash it down. Washerwomen scrubbed the backs of people seated on little wooden stools in the corridors. It was all hustle and bustle. There was no time or need for anyone to feel embarrassed. Everyone was too busy enjoying their weekly sauna.
It was not uncommon for saunas to be used as birthing rooms as well as a morgue, especially in the country where facilities for such things were not common. I can recall Dad talking about various relatives and neighbours who began and ended their lives in a sauna. It was also used as a healing room for the sick. The sauna is actually a fantastic way of detoxing.
Typically in the country saunas are housed in a separate building from the main residence. Many Finns have summer holiday cottages by a lake. This provides an ideal setting for a quick swim in between lashings of löyly (steam).In winter some brave souls treat themselves to a roll in the snow or a quick dip in the specially cut swimming hole in the frozen lake.
A Christmas sauna is another age old tradition. Finns celebrate Christmas on the 24th of December. For us Christmas Eve started with a trip to cut down our own fir tree. In those days we had REAL candles on the tree! Decorations included gingerbread biscuits. A Christmas sauna was the next order of the day. It was important to be squeaky clean for Santa! Finnish folklore has it that a sauna is the home of a saunatonttu (elf).
Having grown up with a sauna, it feels really odd to me that people wear bathers to go into have a sauna. Naked is best. Who has a bath or a shower with clothes on?! As we don’t have easy access to birch branches where we live, I have substituted dry skin brushing instead. It’s not quite the same, but the end result is still good. It’s a great skin cleanser and detox. Our sauna now has an electric kiuas (stove). It’s not quite the same as a wood stove, but we opted for the convenience of flicking a button.
Apparently Finnish soldiers on peacekeeping missions are famous for their saunas. A second world war Finnish military field manual states that ‘a break of eight hours is all that is required for a battalion to build saunas, warm them and bathe in them…’ The most unique sauna I have ever had was once when we were camping. A big hole was dug , filled with smooth fist sized river stones gathered from a nearby dry creekbed. The stones were heated over many hours in the fire pit, much like many indigenous people do to cook food for feasts. When the stones were deemed to be hot enough, a tent was erected over the top – and voilà – sauna!
© Raili Tanska