If you ask me, there is not a thing more Finnish than the sauna. It might be the only Finnish word that has made its way into the English language (if in Finland, make sure to pronounce it “să’ ū nă”). In Finland there are more than 2 million saunas, some of them really weird ones. Have you ever heard of a sauna in a library, in a phone box, in a Burger King or even in an old warship? Yep, all of them you can find in Finland. Every family has their own sauna, sometimes even two – one in their actual home and the other one in their summer house. If you are lucky and get an invitation to a Finnish home, be prepared that the host will warm up the sauna for you. In that case, you might find this post useful because here you will get some proper instructions on how to use and behave in a sauna. Make sure NOT to read instructions made by someone who is not a Finn, they will just make you look ridiculous.
Understand the cultural and historical meaning of a sauna
Sauna is an integral part of Finnish culture and and over the course of time, it has served as an medium and arena for different functions and practices. It has been a place for different transitions, a place where people share feelings of togetherness, perform rituals and heal themselves or others.
Sauna was a place for different transitions in human life. Back in the old days, sauna was the most hygienic and warmest place in homes so many people were born in saunas, like my grandparents. When a young girl was about to get married, women prepared bridal saunas where they performed different rituals in order to wash away the memories of old boyfriends and to prepare the young bride for the marriage. When a person died, sauna was the place to wash the body and prepare the person for the afterlife. Besides these important transitions, sauna was an integral part in different celebrations. Before the Christmas day, people heated joulusauna, Christmas sauna and during the Midsummer festival, they went to juhannussauna, Midsummer sauna. What is quite interesting, usually on those two occasions not only people, but also the sauna itself was washed and cleaned. Sauna is something that is far older than Christianity in Finland and it was used during different pagan rituals too. However, the Finns didn’t want to give up their use of sauna so it was integrated into different Christian traditions.
Sauna was also a part of everyday life and it served an important function of being a place where people washed themselves. In the old days, people didn’t use showers or bathtubs – sauna was the place for the whole family to get clean. Usually people heated the sauna just once a week – mainly for practical reasons since it took a long time to heat up a sauna before the invention of electronic saunas. The traditional sauna day was Saturday, and Saturday evening to be exact. And once again, it wasn’t just a way to get physically clean. It was also a way to relax after a long work week and to purify oneself spiritually too – in order to be ready for a church on Sunday morning. Sauna marked a passage of time and separated the work time from the free time and from different celebrations.
Sauna was a place to heal. There is a saying in Finnish : “Jos sitä ei sauna ja viina paranna, se on kuolemaksi” (If sauna and alcohol doesn’t cure it, it will kill you). In the old days, it was believed that sweating in sauna combined with cubbing and beating of the arteries was a good way to get the illness or bad blood out of a person. Today, it is proven that sauna has some physiological and psychological benefits, it helps to release endorphins and sauna consumption is connected to better quality of sleep. Also whisking is an important part of sauna experience. People make a whisk of birch branches and hit themselves or others with it. It increases the blood circulation and releases a nice scent.
Sauna was also a place that brought people together. Never in Finland sauna has been something that has been reserved just for the rich. On the contrary, everyone, no matter how rich or poor, whatever social status or age, had an access to sauna. Traditionally all men, women, children and even servants went to sauna together. Sauna was a place where everyone was equal, everyone was sitting naked side by side without any rank or social status. It was a place to share intimate things, open up, be vulnerable. It was also a place to negotiate on business deals or political actions, it was a place for sharing secrets, place of being honest. So sauna was important, not only in private and family life, but it also served an purpose in business and public life. For a long time it was a big problem for Finnish female politicians or people working in business that the actual business negotiations, deals or decisions were made in saunas by men – it was a medium to shut women out from decision making and promotions. So sauna did not only bring people together; it was also a way to separate people or leave people out from something.
There is a great movie on Finnish men sitting in a sauna and telling about the most touching experiences in their life. Here is the trailer:
After reading this short introduction into the meaning of sauna for the Finns (for more, read this very interesting theses on sauna practices), you might understand that it is a big gesture to be invited into someone’s sauna. It is a sign of hospitality and a way to make you feel welcome. If you don’t have any medical issues, treat this invitation with respect. Especially if the sauna is already heated up for you, it is considered rude to decline.
How to behave in sauna?
These instructions are for saunas in private homes.
- First your host heats the sauna to a nice temperature (70 degrees is good for me). Usually the host will tell when the sauna is ready, and then soon after that you should start making your way to the sauna. It is considered a waste in Finland to keep the sauna empty once heated.
- Normally men and women go to sauna separate and it depends on each family, practical things and the mood who goes first. Sometimes couples want to go together and in some families kids go with women or sometimes with men (usually boys go with men and girls with women) or sometimes kids go together. Usually teenagers want to go alone. Depending on your gender, you are usually invited to go with the host or the hostess but it is completely fine to ask who is going with you if you are unsure.
- Normally people are naked in saunas. If you feel uncomfortable with this, people will understand if you want to have a towel wrapped around you. If you want to wear swimmers, for my family it is fine but some families consider it unhygienic. Also in public saunas swimwear is forbidden (there you will get a disposable plastic paper to put under your bum).
- Before you enter in sauna, you have to take a shower with warm water.
- In saunas, there are usually 3 benches, the highest being the hottest. A true Finn (men at least) always sits on highest one no matter what. People have a bucket filled with water and they throw the water on the sauna stones to create steam. Be aware that a Finn wants to show that he or she is a tough sauna goer and they will probably trow heaps of water on the stones to make the sauna way too hot for you (and for them too but they’ll suffer for the sake of the image). This is all a play, and you are expected to play your role. When it gets too hot for you, just say that you give up and sit little bit lower or go to take a cool shower. If you really want to make a profound impact, you can say that you once went to a sauna with a Swede and it wasn’t nearly as hot then. Finns will love you for a long time.
- As said, sauna is a sacred place for Finns. Traditionally people behaved in saunas like they did in church. No shouting, no swearing, no harsh language. Relax and have respect for the environment.
- Nowadays people don’t really hit themselves with whisks made of birch branches. They only do it for a special occasion and if your host has prepared one for you, you are the special occasion. Embrace that.
- After you are done, it is time to cool down. Take a cool shower, take a dip in a lake or even roll in snow. Then go back to sauna and repeat as many times as you want.
- After the sauna, it is time for drinks (many Finns drink during sauna bathing too) and some light snacks and socializing.
- Thank your host for the wonderful experience – Finns will appreciate that, even though they will say to you that it is nothing special for them, and it was not a big thing to heat it. They love hearing the praises
To Fin(n)ish, here is a great sauna video:
Enjoy the sauna time!