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Sauna (the s.c.nordic FAQ)
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The home pages for the Usenet newsgroup soc.culture.nordic
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Sauna

 



Subject: 4.6 

The Finnish Sauna

<by Mauri Haikola>

While the word "sauna" (in the Finnish pronounciation, the "au" sound is like "ou" in "loud") means different things in different countries, for a Finn it means an elementary part of everyday life. Ever since childhood, Finnish people learn to bathe in sauna, usually at least once a week. Yes, they do it naked, and yes, they go in there together with other people, while naked. This and other aspects of the Finnish sauna are discussed in the following questions and answers.

 

Q1 Why is sauna something special in Finland?

A1: Mostly because of ancient traditions. Wherever there have lived Finns, there have also been a sauna nearby their residences. In the early days of Finnish history, it was a small wooden hut near a lake, and people used it not only for cleaning themselves, but for childbirths, some medical operations and other duties that required a clean, bacteria-free environment. Today, practically all houses in Finland have a sauna. In urban areas, you usually have one per building, but even in a relatively small apartment it is not a rare piece of luxury these days. This being the case, Finns discover at an early age what a refreshing way it is to clean oneself both physically and mentally. The tradition is not a dying one either.


 

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Q2 What is a Finnish sauna like?

A2: The basic parts are the stove ("kiuas"), filled with fist-sized stones, and the benches or platforms ("lauteet"), made of wood (anecdotes of metal benches in the saunas of some Finnish-built Russian warships are told :). There are usually two benches, one of which is higher (the seat) and the other one lower (place to rest your feet on, or another seat if you feel it's too hot). These are what all saunas have. The modern saunas have the usual shower and dressing rooms too, but the traditional ones near a lake or sea (usually in the vicinity of a summer cabin, or built in one) do not require anything but a stove for heating and a bench to sit down on -- you can do the cleaning in the lake. The stove is traditionally fuelled by wood, but electrically heated saunas are common due to their safe, easy and clean use. The average sauna has room for 3-6 people at a time.


 

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Q3 How are you supposed to bathe?

A3: There are no rules, only guidelines. Finns like their traditions, but do not enforce them on themselves or foreigners. Usually you bathe together with your family. If you are with friends or others that aren't family members, men and women take turns to bathe separately. Most public saunas are separate for men and women, but not all. You take your clothes off (this is not a rule, mind you; if someone wants to use a towel or bathing suite, it's not a breach of any important etiquette), go and sit down on the benches and relax. The air is not particularly humid at first (there is no visible steam), and when you feel like it, you throw some water on the stones to increase humidity. This causes the water to vaporize very quickly, and it makes the bathers feel a momentary breath of hot air in their backs. It may be uncomfortable, if the stove is too hot or if you use too much water, and in those cases it helps to step down on the lower bench, or to go out entirely. This is also perfectly acceptable, and first-time sauna bathers shouldn't feel obligated to stay in if they don't feel like it. The basic goal is to enjoy and relax, and sweat. After you've done enough of that, you go to the showers, and/or swim in the lake, depending on the facilities. After swimming or showering, you can go back to the sauna, and repeat this cycle as many times as you want.


 

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Q4 How hot is it in there?

A4: This varies according to the bathers' wishes. Usually the temperature is between 60°C and 110°C, the widely-agreed-upon ideal temperature being somewhere around 85°degrees. Sometimes (after a few drinks) Finnish men engage in an unhealthy competition over who can stay in a hot sauna the longest time. This is not the way sauna is meant to be enjoyed, not to mention that it can be dangerous. Also, you shouldn't be drunk in sauna. A cold beer after sauna, however, tastes usually great, even a mediocre brand.


 

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Q5 What is a smoke sauna? How does it differ from the usual one?

A5: A smoke sauna (savusauna) is perhaps the most traditional kind of sauna. There is no smoke pipe: all the smoke from the stove goes inside the sauna while heating. Of course, it has to be removed before bathing, and this is done by opening a small hatch on the wall. The fire on the stove must not be burning while bathing, but this doesn't matter, since the massive stove radiates plenty of heat for many hours. A smoke sauna is often considered the ultimate sauna experience, complete with the wonderful smoke odour. Smoke saunas are somewhat rare compared to the normal ones these days, but sauna enthusiasts praise them so that there still exist plenty of them.


 

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Q6 Do Finns really jump out naked into the snow in the middle of sauna bathing and roll around in winter time? Or go swimming in a frozen lake?

A6: Some do, most don't. This is a habit that requires a healthy heart and a bit of courage, but it is practised, and there are some enthusiasts who think sauna in the winter is nothing without a quick swim in the snow or freezing water. Of course, others think this is sheer madness.


 

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Q7 What about sauna and sex?

A7: Even though people are naked in sauna, Finns do not see anything sex-related in their sauna tradition. Of course you can have sex in there if you feel like it, but that is neither a part of any tradition nor very comfortable. Women used to give birth in saunas a long time ago, but the conceiving was done mostly elsewhere. Massage parlours and other (sometimes sexual) services that often come with a public sauna in the red-light districts of big cities are unknown phenomena in Finland. Going to sauna naked with all your family is not at all perverted, as the reader might think. Instead, the sauna tradition makes it natural and comfortable for children to learn about human body, and for parents to tell them about it.



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- Is the text above really reliable?
- See the discussion in section 1.2.2!
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This page was last updated May the 21st in the year of 1998.

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