What comes first to your mind if you hear words, such as hot, steam, smoke and wood? Could be many things, but I am talking here about a thing called sauna. The word sauna originates from the Finnish language in the late 19th century. Later it has spread all over the world and nowadays the term is widely used to describe these mystical relaxation rooms. Different cultures have had divergent forms of saunas around already for centuries – Native American Indians and Eskimos have had so called sweat lodges, but the main purpose was to use them for ceremonial rituals and praying. In Central America, more specifically in Mexico and Guatemala, the indigenous people also had their own, different version of sauna, the dome-shaped temazcal, whereas the Russian banya is already quite similar to the Nordic version.
However, the type of sauna we know today can be traced to Finland and the Nordic countries. As the forms of saunas vary a lot based on culture, so do the traditions and customs relating to their usage. In North America, for instance, saunas can be found rather rarely. Places like health clubs and hotels may have them, but often the temperature is quite mild and it is not allowed to throw water onto the sauna stove (Fin. kiuas). In Germany, on the other hand, throwing water is allowed but only by a specific person, so called sauna master (Saunameister). German saunas are very often equipped with hourglasses on the wall telling people how long they have been there and how long still to be. In Finland, it is normal to throw water to the sauna stove and the more the merrier.
In some countries, like in Finland and Germany, it is totally normal to go to sauna naked whereas in other countries wearing a towel or other piece of clothing is a normal custom. Although being altogether in sauna naked may sound like total craziness to people who aren’t used to it, it doesn’t have any sexual intention as some may think. It is just a natural and normal part of the sauna culture. In Finland, it is normal to have separate turns for men and women, but in Germany it is more common to have both genders mixed at the same time.
Sauna has a really significant and traditional role in the Finnish culture. Sauna is considered a holy place where, based on old beliefs, for example swearing has been prohibited so that sauna sprites would not get mad. The sprites were thought to fight illnesses, and for this reason it wasn’t abnormal at all to cure the ill and even give birth to children there. In the past, the physical and mental purification effects of saunas were consider even supernatural.
Nowadays the sauna culture in Finland isn’t as spiritual as in the past, but yet it still has a very important role in people’s lives. It is still believed that sauna offers many health benefits, acceleration of blood circulation being one of them. It is estimated that there are approximately 3,2 million saunas in Finland. It means that there are more saunas than cars in the country. Those crazy Finns, some might say! About 1 million of these are warmed up at Midsummer festival in the end of June. The Finns enjoy going to sauna on other celebration days, such as Christmas and New Year’s, too. It is very common to have a sauna in your house or apartment, either the one that runs on electricity or the more traditional which is warmed up with wood logs. And trust me, there is a need once you have spent enough time in the freezing temperature of -25 degrees Celsius, the need for sauna is tremendous.