Food and the World – The Serious Finnish Sauna Culture – by Mykaila Peters. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
I had sat bare butt on many cedar benches as I sweat away to the point of almost feeling too light headed for comfort in more saunas than I can count but none of them felt quite as idyllic as when I sat in the wood fired sauna on lake Höytiäinen after a day spent boating to Surmaluoto island, making the sauna fire, paddling to a neighboring island for an afternoon hike and the collection of branches for vasta, picking blueberries, eating makkara and jumping into the freezing cold water before being warmed by the dimly lit, birch and eucalyptus smelling small cedar sauna. I felt that I was truly living the Finnish life and I was loving it.
Although I had grown up taking saunas, eating makkara, pulla, kaurapuuro, drinking strong coffee, swimming in cold lakes and even hearing Finnish spoken and sung, it was, literally, a whole other world being in Finland. I learned how seriously the Finns take their saunas. All of them have one, at least one. When I first arrived at the house I stayed at for two weeks, my host dad made a joke that was also quite true stating, “To be a real Finn you have to have three saunas.” And I suppose he was a “real Finn” because he has three; An indoor electric sauna and an outdoor wood fired sauna at his house, and an outdoor wood fired sauna at their island summer home (very common for Finn’s to have). Back home I was used to taking a sauna every Sunday night and often every Wednesday night and some nights in between, but while in Finland, in their warmest month of July, we took a sauna every day, at least once. Taking a sauna is part of their everyday routine and it is not just a quick half hour in and out to clean up, it is at least an hour long. My host dad had once said that some days he goes in and sits and thinks for an hour without taking any steam just to warm up.
The concept of a sauna goes along very well with the way Finn’s live altogether. They live a slow paced life that is not meant to be rushed. They embrace taking their time to relax and enjoy the simple pleasures of life. It is a process to chop your firewood for the sauna, heat the water, cut the birch branches for the vasta, tie them up together, steam them on the stove, and then take the sauna itself, and the whole process is part of the pleasure of the sauna itself. Saunas have the ability to bring people together of all shapes and sizes in their purest form: nude. There is nothing like getting to know someone and become comfortable with them like sitting with them naked as you sweat. The Finn’s are known to be very private people. The people in North Karelia like to joke that people in Helsinki might find it rude if you so much as say hello to them as you walk by on the street and that you should keep your eyes to the ground, speechless, so it seems contrary to their nature to be so open about their bodies, yet such is the way. You may sit together as your body relaxes through the waves of heat until you jolt it awake with cold water.
The ritual of sauna in Minnesota can be quite similar to that in Finland although I had never experienced the ritual of using vasta until I spent a summer in Finland (whipping yourself with steamed birch branches [enhances blood circulation]) nor the ambiance of such tranquility related to the experience. I have gone “sauna swimming” (heating up in the sauna then jumping in the lake to cool down and repeating until you want to be done) many times but never in such cold, clear water. I have taken many saunas, but never once, twice, even three times a day, every day. The sauna culture in Finland was serious. Much different than what we see in the United States, especially commercially.
Globalization allowed for saunas to manifest in all different parts of the world, but the culture and ritual of it has changed a lot. Saunas have found their way into places such as hotels and water parks however it is often prohibited to throw water on the small electric sauna and there certainly isn’t any vasta to be found there. People rarely go naked in public saunas nor find themselves cooling off in a pristine lake. I am also not sure as to whether the wood is always cedar. The directions on many commercial saunas indicate only staying in for a few minutes, whereas in Finland it is common to be in for over an hour. A friend of mine who studied abroad in Morocco recalled a similar sauna imitation, called the Hamman, of sitting in a hot room and being scrubbed with hard blocks. Cultures have found ways to take the concept and form it into something that is more fitting for their style, similar to the changes seen in the sushi industry.
Saunas have a very dear place in my heart from growing up taking them to the experiences I had while in Finland. I am thankful for my opportunity to learn about the traditions and history of the sauna and how truly important it is to Finnish culture.
From Professor Liang’s Fall 2019 Politics of Globalization class. Mykaila is a student of Sustainability.
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25 responses to “Food and the World – The Serious Finnish Sauna Culture – by Mykaila Peters. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports”
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Thank you for your article. I found this to connect very well with my life. During the summer and break times from school I use the sauna at my gym on a daily basis. I never new any history behind saunaing. I thought it was really interesting how you talked about how they went into the sauna for. It said it was for an hour, the most I can make myself go for is a half hour. Another interesting thing to me was how they would whip themselves with birch branches to bring blood circulation. I haven’t ever heard of this but respect their culture. “Saunas have the ability to bring people together of all shapes and sizes in their purest form: nude.” This is probably the best statement that I read. I think its awesome I feel like being nude with people connects them in ways as not seen before. It puts people at a vulnerability and connects them.
I absolutely loved reading your article. Both of my grandmothers are full blooded Fin, so I also hold sauna culture very close to my heart. Growing up, we had one at my lake house. We would sit in it for hours and throw water on the rocks until it was too hot for us to handle, then we would run off the end of the dock and jump into the lake. To this day, I think it is one of the most lively sensations you can experience. I have often wondered how saunas get incorporated to hotels, water parks, and other recreational activities. I feel that everyone should hear the importance of saunas in Finnish cultures before sitting in one. It really is a spiritual experience if you ask me. The smell of the burning wood, the comfort of the wooden benches, it is an uncommon but lovely situation. Reading your article honestly makes my bones ache for a good, hot sauna. I also love the frequent debate… is it pronounced “SOW-na” or “SAW-na”. If you are a true Fin, you know the answer, and you will argue it to the bitter end, haha. Thank you for this excellent article though. It was refreshing and heart warming to be reminded of the Finnish culture I love and appreciate so deeply.
THis article was very informative on the culture and how it actually is with Finnish people and there Saunas. I have a Foreign exchange student that was from finland and he use to always talk about saunas. It was so bad that we bought a gym membership just so he could sauna once a day. That was a great way of explaining how the culture is around saunaing. I do wonder though know as times are changing is the globalization of saunas almost washing out the FInnish tradition to sauna?
Thank you for sharing your experience abroad. Being a Finnish Minnesotan I also grew up with my elders holding those sweaty wood boxes in high regard, and I’m so glad for that. Traditional Finnish sauna practices are incredibly interesting to hear about. Particularly the vasta, what a surprising aspect of using a sauna I would never have even considered. I would be truly grateful if Minnesota happened to pick up the 3 sauna per home trend that Finland carries. I wonder how many you encounter in Finland that can and have built a sauna for themselves.
This article on suana culture in Finland is so interesting to me! My family recently bought a sauna for our basement, but we don’t use it every single day, but it’s so interesting that people in Finland use saunas daily. I’ve heard the health benefits of using saunas daily, and it seems like while even though Finland is cold, people there are very healthy. I also think it’s interesting that even though Finnish people love saunas, they also love jumping into cold water! That’s not really what I’d expect from them. Thanks for sharing!
Your post was a very informative and fun read. Although I don’t know much about Finland and the process behind the sauna experience, I was able to relate it to my personal sauna and hot spring experiences. “Saunas have the ability to bring people together of all shapes and sizes in their purest form: nude.” I thought this was a very powerful sentence because the first couple of times I had gone to a sauna with my mother and friends, I remember feeling tense but after seeing that everyone was comfortably enjoying the cloudy steam of the sauna, I immediately relaxed. Coming from a culture that so much so as wearing shorts was shunned upon, taking saunas almost always felt normal, just like in Finland. The peace and quite that sauna takers displayed showing respect for one another, almost felt like a safe space, an isolation cell from the stresses of life behind those sauna walls. Sauna for me was a ritual between my two friends and I, and on some occasions my sister, my mom and I, every Sunday night before an exam, followed by a good night’s sleep. So much so as a family, we would drive up for long hours just to get to the Sodere Hot-springs. Although similar but not the same, hot-springs have humility and singing in tune with the voices of nature. Leaving me with a thought, if hot-springs are as popular in Finland as saunas are.
Growing up in Forest Lake Minnesota, with many friends whom lived on the lake owning saunas of their own, I would love to go over and sweat for seemingly hours. However, I wasn’t aware of the sanctity held around saunas I always saw them as something the more wealthy families would own as a means for luxury. To hear of how much the Finnish cherish them as a means for gathering was quite interesting to me. To hear about all the work that goes into entering a sauna made me really think. For us growing up we just thought it was a cool way to pass the time, we would flip the switch and add water, enoying the sizzling sound and steam ejecting out from the machine. To hear that there is far more that goes into it in Finnish culture is astounding, from the chopping of the wood to the preparing of the vasta, one truly has to work to earn the gift of relaxing in the sauna.
Thank you for sharing this and hopefully one day I can experience the true way of the sauna.
Mykaila, My grandparents have always had a sauna in their basement as well as one at their cabin. We always take saunas in our swimsuits, and I didn’t know that it was Finnish custom to take them naked. I don’t know if I would be comfortable with that. I like your description about how taking a sauna is a lifestyle in Finland. I observe that the pace of life in the United States is very fast, and right now, taking an hour long sauna sounds like a relaxing retreat from my busy schedule.
Thank you for sharing your sauna experience! I am part Finnish and had the pleasure of spending two years in Finland during high school. The concept of the sauna and the whole experience involved with preparing and enjoying one was not knew to me but the idea of doing it daily was definitely knew to me. In my two years, I developed a love for the sauna as a place to unwind, relax, and enjoy the company of my friends. When I came back, I was unable to enjoy this daily ritual and the adjustment was tough. I hope to put one in my future home and share the experience with my family and American friends!
This such an informative read. It is interesting to read about how culturally important saunas are in Finland. From reading your post it is clear to see how significant saunas are in Finnish culture. The information you included about globalization and saunas is also quite interesting. It is interesting to read about how other cultures have come to embrace saunas in their own way.
Thanks for sharing your knowledge on this subject!
This was really interesting to read and informative as well. I knew that Finland had a big sauna culture but had no idea they went that hard! It seems like you had a great time there, learning about and participating in new activities is the best part of traveling. Taking a sauna everyday like that must feel great. It’s always fun to learn more about the origins of things that we adopt from other cultures.
Your article was very interesting! I had no idea that saunas were such a big deal in Finland, so I was surprised to hear to the degree that people will use there saunas there. Living in America, I have seldom experience with saunas, except for the occasional few minutes my younger self would spend in the hotel saunas simply out of curiosity. I also found it interesting that you were able to relate Finland’s slower lifestyle to their fondness of their saunas. I think you could even look at America’s typical faster paced lifestyle and understand why we do not have more common relaxation past times like Finland does. And maybe this could also be connected to the United States’ mental health issues. Overall I enjoyed reading your article and learning about saunas in Finland!
I really did enjoy reading your article! I never really thought of such a space creating such a connecting and bonding atmosphere so that was a great insight for me. I love the inclusiveness of your ideas and how you describe the connection between all people because as we have discussed in class, that it was globalization is about. I have never really been big on saunas but I might give it another go because of this article! Thank you!
When you mention the fact that commercial saunas in the US have a suggested limit, I wonder if that is due to people not knowing the whole background of how to sauna. It may be second nature to Finns however the sauna experience is, as you mention, more than just the sauna itself. You have to take many steps to truly understand Finnish sauna culture from chopping wood to jumping in frigid lakes. Thanks to the people I know I have spent my fair share of time in saunas, the reason being that these friends are Finnish themselves. I think globalization does well to share the actions that people take but not the process behind them.
I am envious that you were able to experience the true Finnish sauna. Growing up my dad’s side of the family took sauna very seriously. My dad and his brothers would chop all their own wood, stoke the fire, and then sauna for roughly an hour in 180+ degree heat. Then they would jump in the lake and wash up after a few rounds. You are right about that jolting feeling that hitting the cold water gives you. Growing up my dad would even cut a whole in the ice in the middle of winter just to have that experience. I had heard of vasta in some sauna song, but I never knew the purpose of it. I can’t sauna all day at the cabin like I used to ask a kid, but I still enjoy it!
I did not know that the sauna is such a large part of Finnish culture, and have only experienced saunas in hotel pools. I’ve only ever thought of people using saunas for health benefits and not for relaxation or connection between people. I don’t live on a lake, but I remember staying in hotels while growing up and how I would go back and forth between the hot tub and pool. It’s super cool that you were able to experience this culture both in the U.S. and in Finland. Thank you for sharing!
Thank you Mykaila. I enjoyed reading your story about saunas and how dear they are to your heart. I have a sauna and although I am not Finnish, I really enjoy it as well. What you said about jumping in the lake right after you get hot in the sauna made me remember all the times in summer I have done that too. It is a fond memory even from when I was younger of my friends and I all doing that. Or trying to stay in the sauna the longest so when you jump in the lake it does not feel as cold. Your story was interesting to read, thank you 🙂
Your article makes me want to take a sauna! I grew up learning small bits and phrases from my grandmother but mostly swear words from my grandfather. I love learning more about my heritage, your experience in Finland sounds amazing, but I don’t know if I could handle the heat from three saunas a day. Thank you so much for sharing your story!
One thing I got from your article is the idea of simplicity. You write “they embrace taking their time to relax and enjoy the simple pleasures of life.” Taking time to think about one’s daily life and enjoy its pleasures. This is an idea for people like us in the US come at a price. It always seems like there is no time to slow down and just think about life and take moments to be thankful for what we have or acknowledge those that are around us. Another idea that you speak is the notion of a ‘real Finn’ and owning a certain amount of sauna. Which relates to the idea of Minnesotans and cabins. I am still amazed by the idea of owning a different building apart from the one certain family is already using. Truly a concept that I will continue to think about for a long time.
This article was so interesting to read. For me, prior to reading your essay, Sauna’s were a place at the gym that I would go to after a workout. I’d be there for ten minutes maximum, and I would be anxious to leave because being in a small hot place with strangers is just awkward. Having said that, reading what you wrote about how important it is in Finland, and their values of a slow paced life, everything makes sense. Here in the U.S. it feels like we are constantly on a rush, and we have to get as much stuff done. It is not a bad thing, but it does often makes us forget to just enjoy life. To take a breath, and to relax, I think that from now on, I will take in a different appreciation of saunas.
I really enjoyed your article because I was able to relate to it in many ways. My family is Russian, and they are also very serious about their saunas. I remember growing up at our cabin that had a sauna and doing the exact same ritual of heating up, and jumping into the cool lake. It is one of my favorite childhood memories. We don’t have a sauna at our house in the US, but whenever I visit back home, my family always make it a tradition of going in the sauna many times. It is awesome that you were able to experience this part of Finnish culture that seems incredibly important to them. I would love to experience the relaxed, and easy going lifestyle that you talked about. I would also love to experience taking a sauna the way they do in Finland, I am sure it’s not the exact same as the Russian culture!
I did not know that there was a ritual to saunaing, this is a good example of how globalization can affect cultural traditions. It is a beautiful thing to be able to have such accessibility to other cultural traditions, but with that, important aspects can be left behind. For example, I had never heard of the whipping before entering the sauna. I think it is necessary for people to do as much research as they can about other cultures to fully understand these traditions. Thank you for the information so I can now sauna the correct way!
What for a fascinating article. I´m very interested in the culture of Scandinavian countries, and your excellent depiction of the very serious sauna tradition in Finnland gave me a new impressing insight into the North European way of living.
I can relate many aspects of your article to my experiences when I spend two summer weeks in Norway. We drove all the way from Frankfurt (Germany), where I´m from to Nordfjordeid in Norway by car in five stages. Hamburg, Kobenhavn, Gothenburg, Oslo, and then we finally reached Nordfjordeid, where we were accommodated at a lovely and comfortable house of a good friend of my family.
During my days in Norway, I was not as much as you were confronted with a sauna cult, however, there was another similar tradition in Norway. Nearly everyone has a woodfired hot tube in their garden. And when the sun is going down and the night is falling in summer, you can find probably more Norwegians in their “vedfyrt badestamp” than in their houses. It´s very time-consuming to get the perfect water temperature, but the good thing is that you rarely have to heat up from the very beginning because the wood oven is often permanently burning in the summer days.
“Saunas have the ability to bring people together of all shapes and sizes in their purest form: nude.” I thought this quote is very meaningful, and I can transfer it to the hot tubes in Norway. It has something exceptional and gorgeous to sit together in a warm wooden tube in the open air and have a magnificent view on the fjord and the hills in the background.
I love hearing ou share bit about the culture in Finland! the idea of the sauna is such a great example of the effects of globalization. It is really cool that you have gotten to experience the culture of saunas in Minnesota and be able to compare it to Finland’s. Do you think the popularity of saunas in Minnesota stemmed from migrants from Finland? I wonder what other states use saunas like Minnesota does? I have a grandfather who is form Finland and he uses a sauna they way you have exaplained the Finnish do which is interesting because he moved to the United States when he was 12 but still is able to hold onto culture from his home. I also had the opportunity to witness another sauna tradition in Mexico. I like how you exampling that the sauna culture has spread all over the world but each place puts their own spin on it, it is so true!
Thanks for sharing