Sitting on the toasty wooden benches of our family sauna, I remember my great-grandmother telling me to keep quiet.
Sauna and the act of bathing was to be done in silence. According to her, going to sauna was like visiting church, being in a place of calm while washing away sins – cleansing the mind as well as the body.
While bathing no longer has a role in the spiritual practice of many, sauna still holds an important role in the everyday lives of Finns.
Most families will gather regularly to sit huddled next to each other in Finnish homes.
Adults sit higher up, close to the ceiling, while children are placed on the lower benches, closer to the cooler air drifting around the floor.
Friends often arrange to meet for a sauna if they don’t have their own at home. You won’t find us sitting gossiping, though – if we chat, it’s quietly, out of respect for others. Plus we’re generally a silent people.
In a public sauna, food and drink are not allowed, but in private ones, beer or vodka are popular to cool down.
Most households or apartment blocks have their own sauna, as do big companies, state institutions, ships, factories and the president’s office – there’s even a sauna in every Finnish embassy around the world.
The ritual of steaming and sweating at temperatures of about 100C remains a quintessential part of life. Throughout Finland’s history, saunas have been the primary location of getting together, healing and even giving birth.
Life also ended in the steam as the dead were washed upon their last journey on this earth.
While pagan history dictates the sauna should only be visited during the day before evil spirits take over at night, many Finns have started bathing during evenings.
A gentle steam followed by a dip in the cold sea is a great way of letting go. For visitors, public saunas range from spa-like to basic.
They’re open for anyone in need of relaxation. Most establishments offer changing and bathing rooms separated between sexes – but don’t be shy.
The best ones are those allowing for meetings between people, with no regard to wealth, status or gender.
I know what Brits are thinking. This all sounds nice but what about the being naked part? Well, the times they are a-changin’ – even in Finnish saunas.
While most public saunas require you to take part in your birthday suit, many private establishments offer customers the option of experiencing a sauna in swimwear.
But just come as you are – we’ll welcome you with open arms. And maybe a towel.
So where should you go to experience Finnish sauna culture?
These are Finland’s top three public saunas…
This self-service public sauna is in the heart of Sompasaari, a neighbourhood of Helsinki.
Wear a swimsuit if you wish and get thrown into the thick of what Helsinki has to offer, then plunge into the sea if you’re brave enough. Free of charge, always open.
Rauhaniemi Public Sauna, Tampere
This public sauna opened in 1929. Rauhaniemi offers separate changing rooms for sexes and swimsuits are encouraged.
Make sure to bring sausages in the winter to barbecue in the freezing cold with only your bathers on.
This sauna in the Lappish landscape offers steam baths in a range of seasons. Visit under the midnight sun or during the freezing cold winter months to surround yourself with the aurora.
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