As winter hits Egypt, this year (2019) has begun with snow on Mt Sinai, people rushing out to buy slippers, heaters, blankets and scarves….. and yet on average the temperatures are around 11C! The apartments and buildings here are not built for cold weather: we like the sun, warmth and humidity of the majority of the summer months.
But as I sit next to the heater, wearing woollen socks and lined slippers, clasping my hot beverage, I wonder how people in the Arctic areas survive?
The answer: a regular SAUNA!
The word “sauna” was taken from the ancient Finnish word for “bath/bathhouse”.
This concept and activity is part of the national culture and identity of FINLAND: a modest and simple dedicated ritual of the people of Finland. The Finnish Sauna Society (yes, it is a thing) estimates that there are 3.2 million saunas that service the 5.5 million people of Finland.
WHAT IS A SAUNA?
It is both a noun (place) and a verb (action).
Room: usually a small room or building, designed as a place to experience dry or wet heat sessions, where the steam or the heat causes the bathers to perspire (sweat profusely!) T
People in winter would head up to the hills (warmer) and dig into the hills and create a small cabin or cottage, the dwellings where they would live out the harsh winter weather. A fireplace was loaded with wood, stones heated, smoke filling the dwelling, and water thrown on the hot stones to heat up the dwelling. It would take 6-8 hours to heat, and the warmth would last for 12 hours. This enabled people to remove a couple of layers and still live! The sauna became a part of life from the cradle (births happened in the sauna), through illness (sick people were placed near the sauna to stay warm) and at times of death (the bed for the dying was near the sauna, easing the journey).
DEVELOPMENT OF THE SAUNA:
During the Middle Ages, the concept of a sauna spread throughout Europe, but disease hit most of Europe and it was thought the Sauna might spread the disease: but interestingly enough, not in Finland. So Finland remained the holder of the tradition. During the industrial revolution, the fireplace was replaced by the metal woodstove, with a chimney (so no more smoke inside the room! During WW2, wherever the Finns went they took the concept of the Sauna with them, re-introducing the concept to Europe once more. Finally the electric sauna was introduced, removing the need for burning wood! But in Finland, the traditional Sauna is the one most people have and want: it is quite the ritual.
It is said that in Finland, the sauna is built first and then the rest of the house! This signifies the importance of the place of the Sauna in family and community life.
It is said that there are at least 20 distinct actions that take place in the process of ‘having a sauna”.
- The room must be prepared (wiped clean, wood-pile replenished, water buckets filled, oil / branches ready, towels (to dry with) hung and sit on towels folded on the seats, drinks laid out, pathway to the room prepared (clearing of the snow in winter if it is outside)
- Starting the fire: the fireplace (like a small cooker) must be started, and depending on the size of the room and the outside temperature, 2 or 3 rounds of wood must be burnt before the stones are hot, hot, hot… The average temperature should be around 80C.
- Agreeing the roster: who is going first, second, third and so on. This will depend on who is present: sometimes families sauna together, or just couples, or all women, or all men!
- Getting undressed and entering the sauna
- Choosing where to sit (the higher rows of benches are hotter than the lower ones, and closer to the stove or further away!)
- Ladelling water onto the rocks to create the correct amount of steam.
- Remaining respectful, speaking quietly, sweating profusely
- At the appointed time, leave the sauna to roll in the snow, or have a quick dip in a nearby pool, having something to drink and then heading back into the sauna (making sure you close the door quickly, thereby not losing too much heat!)
- This cycle is repeated as many times as suits each individual.
- Fragrant oils may be added to the water to add a pleasant aroma
- Small bouquets of birch twigs/leaves may be gentle tapped on the skin to simulate the pores
- More sweat, more steam, more gentle conversation
- When and individual has had enough, it is time to declare you are leaving
- Wipe down the area you were sitting in, put a few more logs in the oven, and remove all your drink bottles, shoes and clothing
- The last person must make sure the sauna is clean and dry: by loading up the oven for the last time, dry heating the whole room
- Remove anything that is left in the room
- Make sure the water labels and buckets are left neatly
- Shower the last of the sweat off
- Dress and enjoy a well deserved drink and meal with friends and family
- Return later to make sure the fire is out and the sauna door shut, and light switched off
SOCIAL EVENT: The sauna is an expected communal, social event: at least once a week, or every few days. It is an honour to be invited to join in a sauna time: it is a place where problems are solved and decisions are made…. But be careful of the “Sauna Elf”, as he watches to make sure that sauna etiquette is maintained, and the process is almost a spiritual and physical cleansing, with a social connection, all happening in a respectful way: it is said that the behaviour in the sauna should be as the behaviour in a church!
The sentence all Finnish people love is:
“The sauna is ready”.
This heralds the beginning of the invitation to you to partake in this sacred, bathing journey, where hurry and noise are out of the question. You will leave warm, pink cheeked, invigorated, relaxed and feeling very much part of the community and a whole lot more at peace with yourself, God and people…. This is the heart of the Finnish culture.