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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