Sauna – the Finnish Cultural Heritage

Tarja Kupiainen, Karelia University of Applied Sciences

Officially, cultural heritage refers to the UNESCO conventions on which of the world’s cultural and natural heritage or intangible cultural heritage is considered worthy of protection. Although cultural heritage is thought to exist before it is defined, yet cultural heritage only emerges when it is discussed and decided upon. Nothing is coincidentally called a cultural heritage, but can be used to create and reproduce a national identity: museums serve as a common memory of the nation, traditional customs and practices communicate a connection to a particular historical continuum.

For example, most of Finns have not perceived the sauna as a cultural heritage but just an ordinary tradition or practice. Especially in Eastern Finland, the sauna has always been an integral part of people’s daily lives. On December 2020, the sauna was accepted into the UNESCO official cultural heritage list. Presumably only now do Finns realize their weekly practice is valuable. The sauna is not only a place or space for bathing but it has various meanings. We might argue that sauna is a significant part of the Finnish identity.

How to use the sauna in tourism?

When tradition is adapted or commercialized to suit tourism, the concept of cultural heritage proves useful. It can be used to bring the present into the present, to modernize it to be recognizable and interesting to today’s people. We have to find out what is of interest to tourists in the sauna tradition. Some tourists may find it too awkward or inappropriate to bathe naked as we Finns do. Therefore, it is better to say that we bathe in the sauna without clothes.

It is important to acknowledge that the Finnish sauna stands out from the Central European sauna or steam room. We throw water on the stove in order to get more heat and healthy steam, löyly, and we use special kind of whisks in sauna. We call the whisk vasta (in Eastern Finland) or vihta (in Western Finland). Vasta is used for beating the body to stimulate the feel of the löyly. The beating (vastominen or vihtominen) makes you feel relaxed, and it relieves pain and is good for blood circulation. It is not indifferent what the vasta is made of: only a vasta made of birch twigs is traditionally allowed in sauna.

The sauna involves a lot of traditional customs, practices and narratives. For example, during Christmas, one interesting tradition is the Boxing Day sauna. Still in the last century, a group of disguised men wandered around the village to heat the neighbors’ saunas. They did it early in the Boxing Day morning, and asked, or demanded a drink as a prize. In my childhood, we kids used to maintain the tradition by wandering from house to house asking if the sauna was already heated. If yes, we demanded something sweet, and if not, we doubled our demand 🙂

And of course: the Christmas sauna is one of the most well-known Finnish traditions.

On my next blog I shall tell you about one Finnish-Karelian peculiarity: the Bride’s Bath, morsiussauna.

Merry Christmas to you all!

PS. The Finnish sauna procedure you will find here: