Finnish Sauna Culture
photo © Discovering Finland
‘There is nothing that Finns have been so unanimous about as their sauna. This unanimity has remained unbroken for centuries and is sure to continue as long as there are children born in their native land, as long as the invitation still comes from the porch threshold in the evening twilight: ‘The sauna is ready.’
– Maila Talvio 1871-1951
The Finnish tradition of sauna has been practiced for around two thousand years and is deeply rooted in the nation’s way of life. It is an intrinsic part of the Finnish identity, as essentially Finnish as rye bread or sisu. In 2016 it was estimated that there are over 2 million saunas in Finland, serving a population of just over 5.5 million.
The oldest known saunas were pits dug in a slope with heaped stones that were heated in one corner. Over time these developed into a four-cornered wooden hut with an earthen floor and a chimneyless stove, which served as both a primitive dwelling and a bath. While the stove was being heated the room filled with smoke which vanished after, leaving a dinstinct smoky smell. These old smoke saunas, or savusaunas, are coming back into fashion, and it estimated that there are over 500 currently in use in Finland. The next adaptation of the sauna was the addition of a chimney to the stove, followed by a stove that could be kept hot by continuous heating.
Although the origins of the sauna are rural, it has gradually become integrated into urban life, as more and more Finns have moved from the countryside to the cities. The first town saunas were built in the yards outside the living areas, and then inside detached and terraced housing or apartment blocks, where they could be shared by families residing in the buildings. Most towns also developed public or communal saunas. Saunas played, and continue to play, a huge part in Finnish family life, until the 1930s most women gave birth in the sterile environment of the sauna, and families continue to sauna together. Indeed, Urho Kekkonen, Prime Minister of Finland from 1950 to 1953 and 1954 to 1956, and President from 1956 until 1982, was born in a smoke sauna.
Most Finns enjoy the sauna at least once a week, although many use it every day – especially in summer. Finns have always believed that you are not properly clean until you have had a sauna, and of course today we now know what they have always known – that to clean the skin most efficiently the pores must be open. When most of medieval Europe’s rulers and aristocracy were obsessed with disguising their body odours with perfumes, the Finns were steam cleaning themselves.
Finns must have saunas, and take it with them where ever they go. In 1936, one was built at the Döbernitz Olympic Village for Finnish athletes participating in the Berlin Olympic Games, and even when Finnish troops were deployed by the U.N. in Eritrea, a sauna was one of the first buildings they erected. In Kosovo, there were some 20 saunas catering for the 300 Finnish troops. In addition to the obvious cleansing, the heat of the sauna also kills many bacteria and insects such as lice. This knowledge was put to good use during the Winter War and Continuation War with Russia, when Finnish troops had mobile saunas for both the men and their equipment, and significantly reduced any problems they might have had with diseases, unlike the Russians who suffered greatly with spotted fever.
‘Jos ei viina, terva tai sauna auta, tauti on kuolemaksi.’
(‘If booze, tar, or the sauna won’t help, the illness is fatal.’)