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Finland: Sauna at the Heart of Family Life
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One of my earliest and fondest childhood memories is that of visiting our family’s summer cottage in Tohmajärvi, Finland. This was a summer ritual.

One year, my grandfather and his friends build a new sauna building from an old worksite barrack or site hut. It was heated up nearly every evening. There was no shower to wash up after a sauna but that did not matter because you could wash yourself using a ladle. The water heated up in a container above the hot stones. The cold water came from a river and you had to mix it in a wash basin to get it warm. My grandmother made whisks (of birch twigs) that we used in the sauna to “beat the body” (in order to stimulate heat and steam, both of which are key to a refreshing sauna). That smell still reminds me of my childhood summers.

 

Summer cottage sauna that the author’s grandfather and father built to the old worksite barrack. Photo courtesy – Anne Åkerberg


Finnish families enjoy their sauna culture any day of the week, month, or year and in any season. It’s ok to stay in for a minute, ten, or thirty. You can go in and out of the sauna as many times as you please. You could jump into a lake to cool down, or a hole in the ice or a pile of snow if you like but you are never forced to do anything you don’t want to. You can go with the whole family or separately with just friends of the same or opposite sex or even in mixed company. You can be quiet or talk loudly even though according to an old Finnish saying 1, you are to sit in the sauna as devoutly as you would in a church. My grandmother certainly agrees with this even though in this day and age, the style of sauna enjoyment is more open and free. Families are different and customs differ with families.

For me going to sauna is a social event and I like talking and laughing in there. We usually heat up sauna to relax after a busy week and we will happily heat up our sauna for guests too. If it’s summer, we often have a barbecue and sit outside in the sun until long in the night having some drinks after sauna. Time spent with friends and family enjoying some post-sauna grilled sausages, beer, and late night conversations are also some beautiful memories I have from childhood.

I want to give my children the gift of similar memories.

 

Photo courtesy: Anne Åkerberg

My Son’s First Sauna Experience 

We took our son to sauna the first time when he was 5-months-old. We started by giving him a bath in the sauna in a mild temperature. Then we started taking him in to sit in one but only for a minute or two each time and we made sure not to throw water on the hot stones of the stove when the baby was in. Water is thrown on hot stones in order to create steam.

You can take a child to sauna when they can walk, which is usually around 12 months. #sauna #Finland #TLC Click To Tweet

According to an old saying and the health recommendations of the Finnish Government, you can take a child to sauna when they can walk, which is usually around 12 months. For us, taking our little boy to sauna with us at a very early age meant including him in a family ritual. And, we are not the only ones. In Finland, babies are taken to saunas when they are 4-5 months old on average, although the related study 2 3 is quite old and new one should be made.

 

After taking a sauna, a woman returns from a swim in Lake Jyvasjarvi, Jyvaskyla, Central Finland. Jyvaskyla is the capital of Central Finland and the largest city in the Finnish Lakeland, an area of more than 188,000 lakes. During the summer months taking a sauna followed by swimming in the lake around the city is a popular activity. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

 

Back then, when our son was an infant, we lived in an apartment in which we had our own sauna. The building had been built in 2000 and around 80-85 % of the new apartments that were built during that time had saunas. Before individual apartments got their own saunas, a trend that started in the1980s, buildings had common house saunas where you could book a time and then go every week at that specific time.

For us, taking our little boy to sauna with us at a very early age meant including him in a family ritual.

When I was a child, my family had a reservation for Fridays at 7:00 p.m. and so that’s when we went for sauna. Every week. Those families that had their own saunas usually heated it up on Wednesdays and Saturdays for either a mid-week or a end-of-a-long-work-week relaxation. Nowadays, the trend is changing again and saunas are being built only in about 50% of the new apartments. Common block saunas are coming back in fashion. Regardless of changing trends, there are still more saunas than cars in Finland!

Did you know there are more saunas than cars in #Finland! #Scandinavia #Nordic Read more Click To Tweet

When our boy was 18-months-old, we moved to a house. That house had an old separate sauna building and a sauna that heated up with wood. The couple who sold us the house told us that this was the best sauna they had ever been to. But of course, that’s something nearly every Finn says about their own saunas. As it turns out, they were right. We probably do have the best sauna in Finland! It takes 4-5 hours to heat it up but the long heating time rewards us with amazingly soft and moist warmth.

My son’s first experience in this sauna, however, was not a pleasant one. After moving into our new home we heated up the new sauna. It was winter. It was dark. It was quiet. Our boy got scared and didn’t want to come there with us. We didn’t try to persuade him. He would come when he wanted to. It took over a year for him to go to sauna again.

Now he is 3-years-old and loves it. We have to be conscious of him not getting in when the temperature is too high or staying in for too long time but other than that, he can go as much as he likes. In some countries, I have seen rules like you have to be of a certain age to go to sauna or that you can only stay in for a certain amount of time. I even saw an hour glass at a sauna once. All that sounds rather peculiar to me. Nothing like a Finnish sauna!

Sauna: A Finnish Tradition for Generations

Sauna has always been for everyone, regardless of background. Rich and poor, urban and countryside, in sauna, everyone is equal. When I talked to my grandmother about saunas, she mentioned how when she was young, saunas were heated up not only to wash up after hard and dirty work at the end of the day, but also to relax sore muscles. Nowadays our work is not very physical but we still need relaxation after a hectic week.

Sauna is an integral part of our everyday lives in many ways. There is nothing luxurious about Finnish sauna. There is nothing sexual about Finnish sauna. It’s very bare and practical.

There is nothing luxurious about Finnish sauna. There is nothing sexual about Finnish sauna. Click To Tweet

If I had to describe a perfect Finnish summer moment, a snapshot, a Finnish dreamland, it would include a summer cottage’s sauna by a lake, a dip in the cold water, and the midnight sun.

And that is an experience and a memory that I want to pass on to my children.

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Anne Åkerberg has a Master’s degree in Theology in addition to a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and is a certified teacher of religious studies and psychology. In her professional life, Anne enjoys shaping legal information into seminars and eLearnings. She is currently on maternity leave managing multiple responsibilities including the care of her 6-months-old twins and 3-year-old son. She loves family dinners, long walks, strawberry cakes and the smell after rain. Follow her journey of motherhood and beyond at www.playfulbus.com.


 

 

 

Footnotes

  1. http://www.helsinki.fi/lehdet/uh/498b.htm
  2.  Lounais-Suomessa tekemämme kyselytutkimuksemme osoitti, että lapsia kylvetetään saunassa keskimäärin 4,5 kuukauden iästä lähtien ja 12 % heistä on käytetty saunassa jo kuukauden ikäisenä.”  https://www.sauna.fi/saunatietoa/sauna-ja-terveys/lapsi-saunassa-ja-saunomassa/ 
  3.  http://www.ts.fi/teemat/1074141535/Sauna+sopii+nykytiedon+mukaan+lahes+jokaiselle

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