As immigrants arrived in the U.S. during the 1600s, they brought along their country's traditions. The Scandinavians who originally settled along the Delaware River around this time were no different. They brought a great tradition of their own: the sauna. Sauna is the only Finnish word in the English dictionary and it means bath, or bathhouse. It is pronounced SOW-NA (not SAW-NA).
Today, the sauna culture is very prevalent in the Lake Superior region. This is especially true in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with a concentration of sauna-goers in the Keweenaw Peninsula. Surprisingly, in the Great Lakes “Sauna Country”, cultural geographer, Matti Kaups, discovered that in some regions up to 90% of the people had saunas. Parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa - home to large populations of Swedish and particularly Finnish Americans - have a large sauna culture as well. So where and when did this incredible tradition originate?
The Sauna was invented in Finland, and has been a way of life there for over 2000 years. The first saunas were dug into embankments in the ground. A fire was kindled in a stone stove, and it was heated until the rocks were extremely hot. There were no chimneys in the earliest saunas. There was only a small air vent in the back wall. Smoke would fill the room as it was heating. It typically took half the day to heat the room to the desired temperature. Once the sauna was hot enough and the smoke cleared, bathers would enter, and sauna time would begin. Over time, the sauna’s walls would become black from smoke. That is where the name “savu” sauna comes from. "Savu" is the Finnish word for "smoke". The name sauna is actually thought to be a derivative of the word savuna, which means “in-smoke”.
The original saunas evolved from smoky black dug-outs to the wide variety of sauna options that are available today. Wood, electricity, gas, and solar power can be used as heat sources. There are wet saunas, dry saunas, smoke saunas, steam saunas, and even those that work with infrared waves.
Now viewed mainly as a recreational activity, there are a many old beliefs connected with the sauna. The Finnish word löyly can be translated as “sauna steam” and refers to the hot water vapor caused by throwing water on the hot rocks. In many languages related to Finnish, there is a word corresponding to löyly. The same approximate meaning is used across the Finnic languages including the Estonian word leil. This word meant “spirit” or “life” and it refers to the sauna’s old, spiritual essence. There is an old Finnish saying “saunassa ollaan ruin kirkossa,” which means, “one should behave in the sauna as in church.” Another old belief was that of the Saunatonttu. The Saunatonttu, which translates to English as “sauna elf”, is a little gnome or elf that was believed to live in the sauna. He was treated with much respect, or he would cause trouble otherwise. It was custom to occasionally warm up the sauna for the tonttu (Elf) or to leave food outside for him. It was believed that he would warn the people when fire threatened the sauna, or he would punish those who behaved improperly in it. Sleeping, playing games, arguing, and being generally noisy were considered immoral behavior in the sauna.
The sauna was (and still is) an important part of daily life for Finns. 99% of Finns take at least one sauna a week, and the number goes up even higher when they visit their summer cottage in the countryside. Summers at the cottage tend to revolve around the sauna, and bathers use a nearby lake to jump in and cool off. Sauna temperatures usually range between 158 and 212 °F. This temperature range causes relaxation and promotes sweating, which cleanses impurities and toxins from the body. The Finns take a bundle of birch twigs with fresh leaves and gently slap the skin while in the sauna. This causes blood to rush to the surface of the skin and creates further stimulation of the pores and cells.
With all of these incredible benefits it comes as no surprise that after 360 years in America, the sauna has become an established tradition for many other Americans besides the Finns. And for obvious reasons! It's incredibly good for you, and it leaves you both feeling and looking better. All you have to do is occasionally lift your hand to splash some more water on the rocks. If you don't already have a sauna in your home, contact the staff at Michael's Homes today to add luxury, relaxation, and value to your life and home. Get started today and get in on one of the greatest Finnish traditions of all time!