A Finnish proverb says, “If a sick person is not cured by tar, spirits [alcohol], or sauna, then they will die.”
Sauna is the only Finnish word to have entered the international lexicon, and appropriately so: saunas are emblematic of Finnish culture. The country boasts 3.3 million of them, a statistic made even more impressive when compared to Finland’s population of 5.3 million. The average Finn family, urban or rural, owns at least one.
Dating back thousands of years, this unique bathing ritual provides Finns with an opportunity for physical and mental cleansing. In earlier times, these heated rooms were used for washing in the winter, when there was no running hot water.
Saunas also saw Finns through life’s milestones. Mothers would often choose to give birth in this sterile environment (unheated, of course). Toddlers would take their first steps in there. Pre-marital purification rituals also took place in these sweltering, dimly-lit rooms. Finally, in the saunas the bodies of the dead were cleaned and prepared for burial.
Today, Finns believe that a house without a sauna is not a house. These chambers can be found in virtually all public and private spaces in Finland: summer cottages, apartment buildings, gyms, offices. Saunas, not boardrooms, are the setting of important decision-making: indeed, members of the Finnish parliament frequently meet and debate in the one at Parliament. All Finnish diplomatic and consular missions worldwide feature their own saunas. In fact, during the Cold War, former president Urho Kekkonen negotiated with Soviet diplomats in the sauna at his official residence.
Visiting saunas is a regular activity for all Finns. Ninety-nine percent of the population takes one at least once a week — in fact, many claim that they feel incomplete if they go too long without one.
Yet these visits are serious affairs. As the popular Finnish saying goes, “All men are created equal; but nowhere more so than in a sauna.” Sharing a sauna with somebody is an opportunity to bond and engage in deep conversation, not small talk. As per etiquette, food, drink, and conversation topics revolving around job, title, or religion are all forbidden.
Men and women, unless members of the same family, visit saunas separately. Parents will often bring their children with them — that is, until the children become teenagers, at which point the latter prefer to go alone or with friends.
“Children…[are]…taught to behave in a sauna as if they were in church,” says Jarmo Lehtola approvingly. Lehtola is a member of Saunaseura, the Finnish Sauna Society, an organization founded in 1937 to uphold and preserve traditional sauna culture.
Many Finns are eager to dispel the myth, perpetuated by popular culture, that saunas are about sex and flirtation.
“It’s nothing to do with sex in Finland,” Lehtola says emphatically. “But in places like Germany in the 1970s and 80s it was all to do with sex.”
Instead, saunas provide a much-welcome refuge in this fast-paced world. In fact, saunanjälkeinen, or “post-sauna,” is a perfectly valid excuse for avoiding doing virtually anything in Finland: Finns respect a person’s desire to peacefully experience physical and mental cleanliness.
“Sauna is for your mind. It really helps you to calm down in a modern society where it is never quiet,” says Lehtola.
Indeed, those seeking to capture the essence of Finland would do well to partake in this quintessentially Finnish activity. No trip to Finland is complete without visiting a sauna.
“There wouldn’t be a Finland without the sauna. It’s in our DNA,” Lehtola says. “If somebody wants to understand what it is to be a Finn, then they have to understand what a sauna is. If you do not experience sauna, then you do not experience Finland.”