Beautiful Finnish Saunas and Sauna Culture
The Finnish sauna (pronounced ‘Sow-na’) is a substantial part of Finnish culture. There are five million inhabitants and over two million saunas in Finland – an average of one per household. For Finnish people the sauna is a place to relax with friends and family, and a place for physical and mental relaxation as well. Finns think of saunas not as a luxury, but as a necessity. Before the rise of public health care and nursery facilities, almost all Finnish mothers gave birth in saunas.
One reason the sauna culture has always flourished in Finland has been because of the versatility of the sauna. When people were moving, the first thing they did was build a sauna. You could live in it, make food in the stove, take care of your personal hygiene, and, most importantly, give birth in an almost sterile environment. Unlike many other, more densely-populated places in Europe, the availability of wood needed to build and warm the sauna has never been an issue. Another reason for its popularity is that in such a cold climate, the sauna allows people warmth for at least a short period of time. However, it is just as popular in the summer as in the winter.
Saunas are an integral part of the way of life in Finland. They are found on the shores of Finland’s numerous lakes, in private apartments, corporate headquarters, at the Parliament House and even at the depth of 1,400 metres (4,600 ft) in Pyhäsalmi Mine. The sauna is an important part of the national identity and those who have the opportunity usually take a sauna at least once a week. The traditional sauna day is Saturday.
Taking a sauna begins by washing oneself up and then going to sit for some time in the hot room, typically warmed to 80–110 °C (176–230 °F). Water is thrown on the hot stones topping the kiuas, a special stove used to warm up the sauna. This produces steam, known as löyly, which increases the moisture and heat within the sauna.
This has a relaxing effect on the muscles and also helps in calming the effects of mosquito bites. When the heat begins to feel uncomfortable it is customary to jump into a lake, sea, or a swimming pool, or to have a shower. In the winter rolling in the snow or even swimming in a hole cut in the ice, an avanto, is sometimes used as a substitute. Often after the sauna it is a custom to sit down in the dressing room or the porch of the sauna to enjoy a sausage, along with beer or soft drinks.
After cooling one goes back to the hot room and begins the cycle again. The number and duration of hot room-cooling down cycles varies from person to person based on personal preference. Usually one takes at least two or three cycles, lasting between 30 minutes to two hours. In Finland’s numerous summer cottages bathing might go on well into the night. This is especially true in the summer when there is virtually no darkness. For many Finns, the sauna is almost a sacred place.
It is usually considered especially rude to swear in sauna, even in company that does not usually shy on swearing. Thorough washing will end the session of sauna. Conversation is relaxed and arguments and controversial topics are avoided. It is also rare to use titles or other honorifics in the sauna. In Finnish folklore, the sauna is the home of the sauna-elf, a spirit of the sauna (saunatonttu in Finnish).
Sometimes men and women go to the sauna together, sometimes not. For someone brought up in Finland, the rules are instinctive but they are difficult to put into words. Depending on the size, composition, relationships, and the age structure of the group three basic patterns can emerge: Everyone can go to the sauna at the same time, men and women may take sauna separately, or each family can go to sauna separately. Mixed saunas with non-family members are most common with younger adults, and are quite rare for older people or on more formal occasions. It is common for teenagers to stop going to sauna with their parents at some point.
In the sauna it is a faux pas to wear clothing in the hot room, although it is acceptable to sit on a small towel or pefletti, a disposable tissue designed to endure heat and humidity (it can be mandatory in a public sauna, such as at a public swimming pool). While cooling off it is common to wrap a towel around your body. Although mixed saunas are quite common, for a typical Finn the sauna is, with few exceptions, a non-sexual place. In Finland “sauna” means only a sauna, not a brothel, sex club, or such. In public saunas one also sees signs prohibiting the wearing of swimming suits in the hot room.
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