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Finland - Sauna

The sauna emoji epitomizes Finland. If nature has taken care of the Finns’ mental health and helped them to understand the meaning of life, then the same has been true of the sauna, which is a part of the life of every Finn. Sauna is not solely a feature of life at a summer cottage on a lake shore, as urbanization has brought saunas into the towns and cities, into apartment blocks, terraced houses, small one-room flats and official residences. Finnish embassies all over the world will have a sauna where visitors are entertained whether they like it or not. Aptly enough, the word “sauna” is an ancient proto-Finno Ugric one that is documented as an everyday word and concept in its own right from the beginnings of the written Finnish language in the mid-16th century.

It is similarly not at all surprising that Finland has persuaded the international Unicode Consortium to approve a sauna emoji for its collection, together with an image of a pair of woollen socks, alluding to the country’s historical and cultural legacy. The Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been a pioneer in this means of image branding, and Finland has been the first country in the world to apply for and be granted emojis, or “smileys” of its own. This will help to spread information about the sauna throughout the world, as the Unicode palette of emojis belongs to the default settings of all smart phones and other applications.

In early times the Finns made their saunas in holes in the ground or in turf huts, which were superseded in time by “smoke saunas”, wooden buildings with a hearth covered by a huge pile of stones, the fire being allowed to burn out and the whole space ventilated thoroughly before bathing. Brick-built stoves which could be heated from the outside became more common in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, to be followed by factory-made sauna stoves in the 1950s and later electric sauna stoves.

The most recent innovation, which appeared in the 1990s, is the infra-red sauna, where instead of throwing water on stones to produce heat and steam, infra-red radiation is used to heat the room to about 50°C. The usual temperature for taking a sauna is 60–80°C, except for sauna yoga, when it should be somewhat lower.

In olden times the sauna was a sacred place for the Finns, a place where one cast spells to drive evil spirits away so that one could be in peace and undergo a ritual cleansing. It was also the custom to leave gifts for the spirit of the sauna, usually the sauna elf. For many people the sauna was a multi-purpose building, as it was also used for treating the sick, for cupping and blood-letting and for giving birth. The Finns still acknowledge the old adage that “if sauna, alcohol and tar can’t cure you, nothing will”. On top of all this, it was common to use the sauna for smoking meat and for brewing beer.

Until well into the 1980s it was also common for most major political decisions affecting Finnish society to be taken in sauna. Since women were only occasionally involved in making such decisions, the men would sit in sauna thinking over, negotiating and deciding upon the state of the nation and its future. President Urho Kekkonen, for instance, would march many a responsible official into the sauna of his residence at Tamminiemi and they would come to an appropriate decision. As more women began to appear in government circles, political bodies and company management positions these “sauna party networks” came in for some severe criticism, but the habit has never disappeared completely from the Finnish sauna culture.

The fact that the Finns always go to sauna naked is something that may horrify many foreigners. Sauna is traditionally not an erotic place for the Finns, and sexual harassment is not permitted there. Nakedness is perfectly natural when we are in sauna, and we have been accustomed to it since we were babies. It was still quite natural in rural or factory communities in the early 20th century to go to mixed saunas, and these were to be found everywhere, but later it became normal for the members of a family to go to sauna together but otherwise there would be separate times or for boys and men on the one hand and girls and women on the other.

Nowadays, in the 2010s, the variety of saunas available is enormous. Wherever a Finn goes, the first thing he will do is build himself a sauna. Thus there are now wilderness saunas, riverboat saunas, swimming bath saunas, hotel saunas, gymnasium saunas, spa saunas, trailer saunas for towing behind a car and a vast array of summer cottage saunas in which the bathing routine includes a jump into the lake, into the snow or through a hole in the ice. Proximity to nature is one of the joys of a Finnish sauna, along with beating yourself with a bunch of birch fronds and enjoying a cool, refreshing drink afterwards.

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Page last modified: 30-09-2019 13:56:20 ZULU