Finland is a nation of 5.3 million people, 2 million cars and 3.3 million saunas. Saunas can be found pretty much everywhere in Finland. They are in private and communal buildings, in homes, offices, factories, sports centers, hotels, ships, even in mines underground. There are portable tent saunas, saunas on trees, on cars, buses, on trailers, even on bicycles, you name it. You can take a sauna for instance even at the Ice Hockey stadium in Helsinki where you can watch ice hockey through the windows while sitting in the “stadium sauna box”. So yes, sauna is very much in our DNA and everywhere you go in Finland. Almost every Finnish household has a sauna. The common sauna days are Wednesdays and Saturdays, nationwide. We can say that about 99% of Finns take a sauna at least once a week, and much more when they visit their summer cabins in the countryside, by a lake.
A typical way to take a Finnish sauna is to take several saunas in one night. Meaning you get in and out of the sauna, to cool off in the shower, outside on a patio or swimming in a lake, and then you go back again to warm up and sweat. This kind of sauna routine takes place all year round, even if it’s snowy or icy. In fact, swimming on frozen lakes, in ice holes, is quite popular. It’s true that routines or patterns of Finnish life revolve around sauna. Whether it is a national holiday, a sports event, a work-related occasion or any other private or public celebration or happening, it most likely involves sauna.
There’s an old Finnish saying “sauna is a poor man's pharmacy,". Back in the days, sauna was considered the holiest room in the house and closely associated with well-being. When working in the fields in harsh conditions, sauna provided relief and soothed aching muscles. But Saunas weren’t used only for bathing. Because saunas were clean places with hot water available, women used to give births in saunas. Saunas were used for preparing and storing food and for making rituals for instance before marriage and after death. These rituals and routines explain why there are sayings such as “Build the sauna. Then the house.” Or a house without a sauna is not a home”. Overall, we Finns like to think of saunas not as a luxury, but more as a necessity.
And we have integrated sauna also in our foreign relations and diplomacy. A good example of this is our former President Urho Kekkonen who used sauna as a meeting place to negotiate with the Soviet Diplomats during the Cold War era. He believed that “all men were equal in the sauna, and politics could not be hidden up a sleeve when no sleeves were worn.” Today, the Finnish parliament has its own sauna chamber, and all Finnish diplomatic and consular missions and embassies around the world have their own sauna.
And another topic I’d like to touch shortly is nudity. Finnish sauna has nothing to do with sex. NO, and suggesting it won’t score you any points. Sauna is a secret place for physical and mental cleansing. It’s for relaxation and taking it easy. And this example I’m about to tell is not as kinky as it sounds, but in the summer, Finns like to use a bunch of birch branches with leaves, tied together, to gently whip themselves during sauna. Yes, you dip this leafy birch bundle in the sauna bucket to soak it in water. You heat up the birch buddle on the sauna stove, on top of the hot rocks and once it’s all nice and hot, you gently “beat yourself up” or the person next to you. This stimulates the circulation and gives a nice, fresh aroma. It simply feels good. You can’t imagine it, you must try it yourself.