THE FINNISH SAUNA

"Wherever in Finland one stumbles upon a human dwelling, one discovers some distance from the house, by a river or by a lake, a small log structure, the sauna."

The sauna or steam bathhouse has become a trademark of Finnish people. No one knows when the first saunas appeared in Finland. Folktales and legends, hundreds of years old, tell how the people took "hot baths almost every evening." Many people believed that bathing could drive away sickness or evil.

Every farm in Finland had a sauna. At first, saunas were found near streams. Later, they were attached to houses. After 1600, however, most saunas were special separate buildings.

Finnish immigrants to America often built steam bathhouses. For many families, this was the first building to appear on their new farm. It was used as a home until a house was built.

The saunas of Finnish farmers and immigrants to Wisconsin and Minnesota were made of squared logs. Logs were carefully cut at the ends to fit together tightly. Early saunas had a single room. People dashed naked from the house to the sauna, even in cold winter. Then many Finnish people added a second room, a dressing room. Benches lined the walls. A stove for heat, and pegs for hanging clothing, completed the room. A lantern, hung by a window between the two rooms in the sauna, provided light.

The bathing room held a water tank, a tub, a stove and a wooden platform called a lavo. The lavo was about four or five feet above the floor. It was reached by steps.

Saunas did not have chimneys. Smoke from the stove escaped through a vent in the roof. Stoves were about four feet on a side. A fire was lighted several hours before the sauna was to be used. When the fire had burned out, the oven was hot. Also, the room was filled with smoke. A member of the family entered and threw a dipper of water on the oven. Clouds of steam rose and carried the smoke up and out of the vent. The lavo and steps were wiped clean of soot. The sauna was now ready for use. A pleasant smell of burned wood remained in the air.

Bathers could sit or lie on the steps or platform. They used tree twigs - called whisks - to slap their skin. After a while some steam escaped from the building. Then more water was tossed on the hot stones of the stove. Bathers sometimes remained in the sauna for several hours, perspiring and switching. Then they quickly cooled off by jumping into a lake or snowbank or by splashing themselves with cold water.

Sometimes small rooms were added to the sauna. The warmth was used to make grain seeds sprout. Meat, flax, herbs and berries were dried in the sauna. Mothers and daughters made candles there. At other times the sauna became a sickroom for the ill.

Saunas have been important to Finnish people for hundreds of years. One man wrote, "The sauna is the most beloved refreshment of the Finn. It is his dearest evening delight and his most important cure for sickness." Another wrote, "A sauna offers peace and quiet away from the trouble of the farm." An old Finnish saying sums it up: "If the sauna cannot help a man, death is near at hand."

Today, a sauna is a good sign that a Finnish family lives on the farm. The walls are no longer made of logs. Boards, covered with tar paper, have often been used. Some modern saunas are made of cement blocks and have both hot running water and electricity. Times change, but saunas remain important to all Finns.

June Pelo (author unknown)

Smoke sauna

Smoke sauna - Savusauna - Rökbastu

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