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Finland's bittersweet boost as UNESCO recognises its sauna culture

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By Sara Lilja Steensig
The vast majority of Finns go to the sauna at least once a week, regardless of age, gender and background.
The vast majority of Finns go to the sauna at least once a week, regardless of age, gender and background.   -   Copyright  Credit: Ari Johansson/Pispala Sauna Association
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Finland must feel like it has won the lottery with a record-low jackpot.

The country received a huge boost last week when UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) officially recognised the importance of its sauna culture.

Yet it was a bittersweet moment for the Nordic country - the majority of its public saunas are closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Nevertheless, campaigners are delighted that saunas are the first Finnish tradition to be added to UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

“The world is full of difficult news right now, so this beautiful news was just what we needed,” said Leena Marsio, a senior advisor at the Finnish Heritage Agency. “This gives our culture appreciation and visibility.”

'Each sauna has its own personality'

Finnish sauna enthusiasts began working on getting UNESCO recognition four years ago.

“This whole project has really been community-driven,” said Marsio. “That’s the main idea: to make people commit!”

Among the many parties involved is the association that runs Finland’s oldest, still working public sauna, Rajaportti, in the western city of Tampere. Here, locals and travellers have come to cleanse their bodies and minds since the early 1900s.

Credit: Ari Johansson/Pispala Sauna Association
Finlands oldest still working sauna, Rajaportti in Tampere, is run by an association of sauna enthusiasts.Credit: Ari Johansson/Pispala Sauna Association

“In Finland, you learn that each sauna has its own personality,” said 39-year-old Claudia Rehwagen, who normally goes to Rajaportti several times a week. “Rajaportti is [like] an old, friendly lady. She can be tough, but she is never in a bad mood."

The inner yard, surrounded by slanted old buildings, usually hums with conversations between steaming bodies wearing nothing but a towel and pearls of sweat.

This afternoon, however, the yard is grey and empty. When it comes to COVID-19, the old Finnish saying that almost any disease can be cured by “sauna, spirit or tar” does not seem to count. Due to the pandemic, public saunas in Finland have, since early December, been closed or operating under tough restrictions.

For this reason, the many volunteers who have worked hard for their beloved culture to be included by UNESCO, could not get together around some hot and steaming stones to celebrate their success.

“It sure was irritating that this news came at a time when public saunas were closed,” Rehwagen, who is also a member of Rajaportti’s executive committee, said.

How does Finland's sauna culture compare?

When Claudia Rehwagen first arrived in Finland as an exchange student 17 years ago, the concept of the sauna was familiar to her from her childhood in East Germany. The culture around the sauna, however, is different in Finland, she explained.

“In Germany, we weren’t allowed to throw water on the stones ourselves. In Finland, the sauna is for everybody, and it’s a relaxed event. It’s all about listening to your own body and doing what feels good on the day,” she said. “Finnish saunas have fewer rules.”

Ari Johansson/Pispala Sauna Association
Breaks, where you go outside to have a drink and a chat or a dip in the lake, are an important part of sauna bathing.Ari Johansson/Pispala Sauna Association

“I think it was a good decision to inscribe Finnish sauna culture onto the UNESCO list. There are vivid sauna cultures in many other parts of the world, for example in Russia and Turkey, but I think the special thing here in Finland is that sauna is indeed for everyone,” said Rehwagen.

Her observations are backed up by the material gathered for the Finnish National Inventory of Living Heritage. Here it says that “on average, Finns have their first bath in a sauna before the age of six months” and that “they will continue to bathe there roughly once every ten days throughout their lives”.

“There are no limits when it comes to age, gender, or background. It’s something we have together, it’s a social thing for everybody,” added Rehwagen.

Finns could all have a sauna simultaneously

The fact saunas in Finland are used by everyone was one of the main reasons why the country, in 2018, five years after ratifying the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, decided to promote the sauna culture as its first entry to the list.

“Sauna culture is a part of Finnish everyday life and our celebrations,” said Marsio. “In the sauna, we relax, enjoy life, and socialise.”

With about 3.2 million saunas in a country of 5.5 million inhabitants, every Finn could technically be using one at the same time.

Most Finns have access to a sauna in their home or a shared one in the building. On top of that there are 511,900 cottages spread around the Finnish landscape, and going to the sauna is a crucial part of cottage life.

Celebrations of important holidays, like Christmas Eve or Midsummer, include for almost all Finnish families a visit to the sauna.

The temperature in a Finnish sauna will typically be 70–105°C, and people will chit-chat or enjoy the silence, casually pour water on the stove’s hot stones and release stress and tension by whipping themselves or each other with a birch whisk.

If the sauna happens to be close to one of Finland’s 188,000 lakes, they might go for a dip in the water or a hole in the ice, and then, with the blood pumping fast through their veins, return to the hot and dark room.

When Marsio last Saturday sat down to enjoy the “löyly” (Finnish word for the sauna’s hot but soft steam), the experience was a little different from so many Saturdays before: “I sat in my own sauna and a thought struck me: this is our cultural heritage! And many Finns probably had the same thought, sitting in their own saunas,” she said.

Ari Johansson/Pispala Sauna Association
"If spirit, tar, or sauna do not help you, then your disease is lethal," an old Finnish saying goes.Ari Johansson/Pispala Sauna Association

What difference will UNESCO recognition make?

Other customs that have been added to the list along with Finland this year include camel racing from the United Arab Emirates and Oman, taijiquan from China and a grass mowing competition from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Though these cultural practices are not in danger of dying out, actions are needed in order to safeguard them, said Marsio.

Every six years, Finland will file a report to UNESCO documenting what has been done in order to safeguard its sauna culture.

Among other measures, the Finnish government supports research into subjects such as the effect of saunas on health and the environment.

Sauna bathing is believed to have plenty of health benefits, among them reducing the risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases.

The country’s many wood-fired sauna stoves let soot into the atmosphere. Burning of wood - for heating of homes and saunas and for other purposes - is the cause of more than half of Finland’s emissions of black carbon particles that harm the environment as well as public health, according to Finnish health authorities (link in Finnish).

“We will have to look at how we can continue this practice in a sustainable way,” Marsio said.

Finland's oldest saunas to get special protection

The Finnish government also pledged to take initiatives to make sure that plenty of the country’s more than 100 public saunas will still be there in the future.

Three public saunas will be protected by special legislation. These saunas are the Kotiharju and Arla in the capital Helsinki and Rajaportti sauna about 160 kilometres further north in Tampere.

“This way we will make sure that those saunas will still be there in 50, 100, even 200 years,” said Marsio, adding that Finnish people in general, and the country’s many sauna associations in particular, play the most important role in safeguarding this cultural heritage.

With an expected reopening on January 10, Finland’s oldest public sauna’s traditional Christmas Eve bath will be cancelled. “When we can only let 10 people in at a time, I’m afraid the queuing wouldn’t be good for the Christmas spirit,” said Ari Johansson, chairman of the Rajaportti Sauna Association.

Marsio from the Finnish Heritage Agency is sure that “when we get back to a more normalised situation, many people will enjoy the public saunas even more”.

“People see the meaning of something when they are missing it,” she added.

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