The Finnish sauna is a substantial part of Finnish culture. There are five million inhabitants and over two million saunas in Finland - an average of one per household. For Finnish people the sauna is a place for easing with friends and family, and a place for physical and mental relaxation. Finns think of saunas not as a luxury, but as a necessity. Before the rise of public health care and nursery facilities, almost all Finnish mothers gave birth in saunas.
Saunas are an integral part of the way of life in Finland. They are found everywhere: on the shores of Finland's numerous lakes, in private apartments, corporate headquarters, and even from the depths of 1400m (Pyhäsalmi Mine) or the Parliament. The sauna is an important part of the national identity and those who have the opportunity usually take a sauna at least once a week. Traditional sauna day is Saturday for corporeal and Sunday for spiritual purification.
The sauna tradition is so strong that even Finns abroad enjoy a good sauna, probably the reason the Finnish Church in Rotherhithe, London, has its own sauna. Finnish soldiers on peacekeeping missions are famous for their saunas; even on the UNMEE mission in Eritrea, a sauna was one of the first buildings to be erected. (A Second World War-era Finnish military field manual states that a rest of eight hours is all that is required for a battalion to build saunas, warm them and bathe in them.)
Taking a sauna begins by sitting in the hot room, typically warmed to 60-100 degrees Celsius (140-210 degrees Fahrenheit), for some time. Water is thrown on the hot stones topping the kiuas, a special stove used to warm up the sauna. This produces steam, known as löyly, which makes the sauna feel even hotter. Occasionally one uses leafy, fragrant boughs of silver birch to gently beat oneself. The boughs are called vihta or vasta. This has a relaxing effect on the muscles and also helps in calming the effects of mosquito bites. When the heat begins to feel uncomfortable it is customary to jump into a lake, sea, or a swimming pool. In the winter rolling in the snow or even swimming in a hole cut in the ice, an avanto, is sometimes used as a substitute. Then one usually sits down in the dressing room or the porch of the sauna to enjoy a makkara, or Finnish sausage, along with beer or soft drinks. After cooling one goes back to the hot room and begins the cycle again. One cycle usually has no noticeable effect. Usually one takes at least two or three cycles, lasting between one half to two hours. In Finland's numerous summer cottages taking sauna might go on well into the night if the company is good. This is especially true in the summer when there is virtually no darkness. For many Finns, the sauna is almost a sacred place.It is a tabu to use swearwords in sauna. Thorough washing will end the session of sauna. Conversation should be relaxed and arguments and controversial topics should be avoided. It is also rare to use titles or other honorifics in the sauna. In finnish folklore sauna is the homeplace of sauna-elf (sauna-tonttu in finnish). It is a belief that sauna is a place where you can wash your soul out of sins.
Sometimes men and women go to the sauna together, sometimes not. For someone brought up in Finland, the rules are instinctive but they are difficult to put into words. Depending on the size, composition, relationships, and the age structure of the group three basic patterns can emerge: Everyone can go to sauna at the same time, men and women may take sauna separately, or each family can go to sauna separately. Mixed saunas with non-family members are most common with younger adults, and are quite rare for older people or on more formal occasions. It is common for teenagers to stop going to sauna with their parents at some point; younger people, especially men, also favour hotter saunas than older.
In the sauna it is a faux pas to wear clothing in the hot room, although it is acceptable to sit on a small towel or pefletti, a disposable tissue designed to endure heat and humidity (it can be mandatory in a public sauna, such as one in a swimming hall). While cooling off it is quite common to wrap a towel around your body. Though mixed saunas are quite common, the sauna, for a typical Finn, is a completely non-sexual place. In Finland "sauna" means only a sauna, not a brothel, sex club, or such. In public saunas one also sees signs prohibiting the wearing of swimming suits in the hot room. In some indoor swimming pools chlorine is added to the water for hygiene reasons. If swimwear used in such water is brought to the hot room, the chlorine will vaporize and cause breathing problems for people with relevant disorders (asthma, allergies).
Foreign visitors in Finland often get invited into the sauna. This may even happen after business negotiations and other such events. In these occasions it may be acceptable to refuse, although it may not impress one's Finnish hosts. Such an invitation in a business setting may indicate that the negotiations have gone well and a joint business effort is anticipated. In private homes or summer residences the sauna is usually warmed to honour the guest and refusal may be more difficult. However, Finns will not typically be offended by declining the sauna.
The savusauna (smoke sauna) is a special type of sauna without a chimney. Wood is burned on a particularly large stove and the smoke fills the room. When the sauna is hot enough, the fire is allowed to die and the smoke is ventilated out. The residual heat of the stove is enough for the duration of the sauna. This represents the ancestral type of sauna, since chimneys are a later addition. Smoke saunas have experienced great revival in recent years since they are considered superior by the connoisseurs. They are not, however, likely to replace all or even most of the regular saunas because more skill, effort and time (usually many hours) are needed for the heating process.
The sauna in Finland is such an old phenomenon that it is impossible to trace its roots. Bath houses were recorded in Europe and Sweden during the same time period, however, Finnish bathing habits were hardly documented until the 16th century. Because of the years of habitation and variant rule by Russia and Sweden, it is possible that the sauna custom evolved from them. It was during the period when the Reformation was sweeping Scandinavia that the popularity of saunas expanded to other countries because the European bath houses were being destroyed. Hundreds of years ago, when bathing was something to be done only rarely or never at all, Finns were cleaning themselves in saunas at least once a week. One reason sauna culture has always flourished and is so highly honored in Finland is the many uses of the sauna. When people were moving the first thing they did was build a sauna. You could live in it, make food in the stove, take care of your personal hygiene and most importantly, give birth in an almost sterile environment. The sauna smoke contained tannic acid, an anti-bacterial polymer, which was the main reason saunas were the most sterile places. One thing that has also affected the spreading of the sauna is the almost endless resources of wood to burn. Another reason is that in such a cold climate, the sauna allows people to feel warm at least for a short period of time. However, it is just as popular in the summer as in the winter.
In Northern Minnesota, Northern Wisconsin, and Upper Michigan (Also known as the U.P.) many of the same sauna traditions still stand today. The manufacturing of what is called "Sauna Beer" has become part of the tradition for some in Upper Michigan. Beer especially made for use in the sauna.