"laestadian, apostolic, gay, lgbtq, ex-oalc, ex-llc, llc, oalc, bunner" LEARNING TO LIVE FREE: The Sacred Sauna

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Sacred Sauna

Growing up, Saturday night was sauna night. My father and five brothers (with help from me and mom) built an authentic Finnish sauna in the woods, with notched cedar logs and a wood stove, and a dressing room and an exercise area, and a shower room and cedar rounds leading up to the front door, and a map of Finland on the wall. Well maybe it wasn't authentic, but it was wonderful.

During the week we kids took turns chopping wood for the stove (I once split my big toenail in two with an errant axe) and on Saturday nights, the family took turns: guests, parents, girls, boys, usually in that order. I was the only girl, so it was a solitary affair unless relatives were visiting.

Lying on the cedar bench, I would listen to the crackling of the fire, the hooting of owls, the wind in the trees, and the hiss of steam as I ladled water on the rocks.

I could hear the crunch of gravel and creak of the exterior stove door as someone stoked the fire from outside. If the heat became too intense, I would shower and return. Sometimes I brought a book and read while the pages grew limp from steam. Eventually a brother's insistent knocking would end my reverie.

I learned how to be alone in that sauna, which was not easy for an extroverted adolescent girl. It was often lonely, a feeling I rarely encounter today.

Now, whenever I smell cedar, I am sent back to that state of lonely serenity. (Tea tree oil has the same effect, so I use a fancy pants hair conditioner for the scent).

While I would like someday to build a small sauna in my backyard, I make do with a less romantic version at the local gym. It is usually vacant on Sunday (one of the reasons I love my gym). After a good workout, I shower and take a swim in the quiet pool. After a soak in the hot tub, I finish my routine with a long sauna.

So last week I was surprised to find the sauna already occupied by an elderly man in running shorts and a dish towel draped over his head. He was facing a bench and doing knee bends, looking very serious and faintly ridiculous. I ignored him, took the top bench and closed my eyes.

When I opened them again, the man was frowning at me. In a thick accent, he said "one must MOOOVE to get benefit of the SAHna!" He made some bending motions.

I must have looked dumbstruck. You see, I am a nice person. I even look nice, the kind of person people are always stopping to ask for directions, or the time, or a spare dollar.

But this was really beyond the pale.

"Sir." I said. "YOU can't tell how to take a SOW-na. My people invented the sauna. I grew up in a sauna. I KNOW how to take a sauna. Maybe not a FRENCH sah-na, but a Finnish sauna."

But he was not deterred. Neither was he French. He went into great detail about his cardiovascular health and stamina, and whipped off his head towel to display proudly a full head of hair, suspiciously free of gray. He introduced himself as "Dr. John" and said he came here at age 18 from Roumania, and keeps up on all the American AND British medical journals, and knows what ails "you people" and it isn't just fast food and "quick carbos."

He stared pointedly at my middle-aged physique and said I should "stop the eating of milk."

I showed restraint. I did not demonstrate my newfound core strength (Nautilus-derived) and suspend him by his ankles, or his full head of hair. I did not MOOOVE a muscle. Nor did I tell him I am lactose-intolerant.

Instead I laughed and laughed and told him he was FUNNY. Then I quickly left the sauna, before the Devil got the upper hand.

But I may bring some birch branches next time.

That'll show him.


Share your sauna stories!


  1. When I was a kid, it was my chore to prepare the sauna every week. Ours was an outbuilding with a wood stove and no plumbing, so I would keep the stove stoked, and haul milk pails full of water, arranged neatly in a row along the upper bench.

    I still enjoy a good hot sauna, especially with a cold drink in hand. My favorite is lime-twisted gin on the rocks with lime infused tonic water, and Rose's Lime juice. :-)

  2. Saunas definitely have an ambiance that I treasure. The pronunciation thing is funny--I was probably about 6-8 before I realized people pronounced sauna as anything other than SOW-na, and then only because my cousins were making fun of the city kids who didn't know how to say it correctly. Sauna is a Finnish word--it comes from the Finnish--and in Finnish you pronounce it SOW-nah. So I'll start saying SAH-na just as soon as I begin ordering FAA-jit-uhs from the Mexican restaurant.

    I like the stories of the Finns in the Finno-Russian war. While the Russians were freezing in the bitter cold winter because they weren't prepared for the weather, just across the battle lines, the Finns were enjoying toasty hot saunas.

  3. Because Finnish is a strictly phonetic language, every letter is pronounced distinctly. There are no combination letter sounds as in English. The "a" in both places in sauna is pronounced as "ah" and the "u" is pronounced as an "oo" sound. Hence it really is "sah-oo-nah", which is pretty close to "sowna".

    The fact that Finnish is phonetic, (and really only uses 16 of the 26 letters -- plus of course the "ä" which sounds as an English short "a", and the "ö" which I cannot come up with a good English equivalent) is why a few of those "lukkaris" or song leaders -- with just a little practice -- were able to sing Finnish songs without understanding a word of what they were saying! Many an OALC second and third generation Finn kid could sing those old songs by heart -- "Hengensä antoi" as the most common example, without knowing at all what they were singing!

    And hence endeth the lesson...

  4. I miss having a sauna. My parents still have an outdoor wood-stove sauna, and only running water from the hydrant in the summer, it doesn't work so well in the winter. And to heat the water theres a big pot on the stove..sounds like a lot of work compared to the indoor ones with electric stoves and showers. :) I only get one about 2 times a year now, and I sure can't handle the heat like I used to be able to!!
    I remember when I was little if a friend would invite non-laestadian friends to a birthday, and we'd go for sauna, they would think it was so weird and not dare to get naked. I guess this would seem pretty weird tho if you didn't grow up with it...

  5. Ha! You are absolutely right, cvow. "Hengensa antoi" is the only Finnish hymn that I know by heart (first verse and a piece of the second) and I don't even know any more what "Hengensa antoi" means! MTH

  6. Oh c'mon Trails, surely you also remember "O Jumalan Karitsa, joka pois otat maailman synnit, armahda meille päälemme", the slow, sad song, sung during communion.

    Finnish origin? Nah. That is just Finnish for the Agnus Dei, a prayer song introduced into the Catholic Mass in the 7th century, and still used today by many faiths --

    Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
    Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
    Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

    Ok, ok, English then...
    Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us;
    Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us;
    Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

    Sorry, I guess this has nothing to do with sauna! I get distracted so easily...

  7. Yes, of course I remember that one too. But what?? It wasn't written by a "Christian" but is just a translation of a Latin prayer song from a Catholic mass? Oooooeeee. How dare those OALCers sing that with a clear conscience. My, my, how we believe what we want to believe. MTH
    PS I've been getting chuckles from your posts lately. Somebody else made me laugh also . . .

  8. LLLreader sez: Honest to Pete cvow--you come up with the most interesting stuff. I hope we are related! MTH--I know we are related, by marriage, through Sandra. I always wonder how many of these other fellow travelers are kin. What's the Finn word for relative? I sure like the sound of it, but no clue about how to spell it.

  9. Sometimes I am lonely for my family and wonder how many of them that left, or were searching when I left, are out there somewhere... Sometimes I wish for less anonymity, but then I remember; its a lot harder to be seen for who I really am when you know my name, then my name and the rumors attached define me, instead of listening to me and getting to know me. No finger pointing at anyone in particular, just a fear of mine :p

    I can remember using the sauna (and getting made fun of for my Minneapolis over-pronounciation of words Sowww-na :) I love the wood fires and pouring water on until we couldnt see. Just sit. Listen to the sizzle. The drips. My breathing. Smelling the cedar. Scrubbing each others backs till no more skin came off. Walking outside in the snow, knowing it SHOULD be cold, but creating a cloud around me. I used to pretend I was an angel coming to visit myself!

    Yep the gym is a sorry second choice, but the best we have for now! They actually have a sign stating Do NOT pour water - must be electric or something ;)

    cvow I think it was you - I have been singing "Mama Llama ding-dong" all day!

  10. LLLreader, I suppose we could be sukulaiset (the word you were searching for). If you wish to explore that, Free can give you my email.

  11. When growing up I got used to having sauna at least once a week, usually more. In the summer sometimes even as often as every day. My parents have an electric sauna inside the house and a wood stove sauna outside (it's used only in the summer). However, I grew out of the habit during my exile outside of the "Saunaland" where sauna wasn't available, but it seems to be slowly coming back. I'd like my next home to have a sauna.

    I'm planning a trip to the Middle East next summer, and I wonder if I should try the Hammam/Turkish bath, anyone tried it? What's you opinion about it compared to the Finnish sauna?

    By the way, the reason why the Rumanian man had covered his head could be that he had learnt it from the Russians. Russians typically wear hats (often even fur hats) when they go to sauna (called 'banya' in Russian). I never figured out why they do it, maybe to protect their ears and scalp from getting burnt?

    There's really not much difference between the Finnish sauna and the Russian banya, although the stoves look different. Russians often believe the Finnish sauna is dry, i.e. no water is thrown on the rocks, which of course is not true.


  12. Hey

    Sauna is another sacred place for us Finski Basterds=). Maybe its more popular than the houses of God in my area. I live in northern Finland and I'm a bit familiar with Laestadian lifestyle. In my opinion the "lestas" are pretty cool and I like the powerful message nad teaching the Word. I belong to another church (I am Punk for God) but I visit lestas time to time for to soak in the blood of Christ so to speak. I know about the strictness and all. (btw. Kielletty hedelmä (2009) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1188998/). Anyway what comes to sauna...There is a sauna in every flat, even the small one room flats have one in my area=). I have sauna every day-it is not very green but i dont drive a car. You cant pronounce it right anyways so take it easy. Ask a fiin and you learn. Stove is a translation for Kiuas (key-us) which is specific for the thing in sauna. Actually, we do have the special word for everything in sauna. Even the bucket in sauna is called a saunabucket. Someone was speaking about finnish hymns. I tend to sing in sauna cause its a quiet place with no echo. That "hengensa antoi" is Henkensä antoi - Gave His life (on the cross for that who ever believes in Him shall not die). Angus Dei in finnish is "Oi Jumalan Karitsa, joka pois otat maailman synnin-Armahda meitä.x2 Oi Jumalan Karitsa, joka pois otat maailman synnin- Anna meille rauhasi ja siunauksesi.". Someone asked the word for relative, it is sukulainen (sue-coo-lie-nen). Hähä, please come again! Sending yous ppls a very warm hug with blessing from my chamber. It's 2:58 and I just woke up. In the morning I am going dumpsterdiving food from the markets. No, I am not that penniless but i think like a Punk. Great fun and keeps me fit. I wish I could do it with unicycle=)

  13. Pyhä is quoting the modern Finnish translation of Agnus Dei, used by the Lutheran church in Finland. The OALC in America has preserved a much older translation which sounds a bit funny in the ears of Finns from Finland. That's probably how it was sung also in Finland about 100 years ago. Btw why is it that Agnus Dei is typically sung in Finnish in America (at least in the OALC) although the rest of the service is in English?

  14. Welcome to the blog, Pyhä. :-)

    Hibernatus, I'm not sure why the Agnus Dei is always sung in Finnish. We did it that way in the ALC too, even when the rest of the service was in English. Growing up, I knew all the words in Finnish even though I had no idea what any of them meant.

    We always had a few Finnish songs during communion for when the old folks would come up to receive.

    Pyhä, how hot do the saunas typically get in Finland? Mine only goes up to 175 F (or 79.4 C). That's hot enough for me (especially with lots of water on the rocks), but I'm guessing not hot enough for a native Finn. :-)

  15. Tomte,
    We used to have contests when I was a young man, and often had our sauna (wood fired, none of that electric stuff) up to 220 degrees F or so.

  16. The hottest one I've ever been in was about 210-220. That is hot!!!!

  17. I remember being in Eddie Levanen's sauna in the U.P. and seeing his plaque hanging there saying he was an honored member of the Finnish Sauna Takers (or some such thing), having withstood sauna at 235 degress, and 250 degrees with vihtas (switches). It impressed me mightily!

    I agree, 220 is mighty hot. I don't know quite how you'd breathe at 250 except through a wet washcloth.

    The one sauna experience I feel I should still try some time is a savu sauna, but to find one in the US would probably be impossible. On our ranch, we actually had the remnants of my grandparents' savu sauna that was falling down. Even with the roof off for who knows how many years, you could still see the soot stain on the walls.

    Hibernatus, are there any savu saunas left in Finland?

  18. Cvow, there are savu saunas left, but they are quite uncommon nowadays. Urban saunas are typically electric, while rural outdoor saunas (incl. summer residences) tend to be wood heated, but usually with a smoke pipe.

  19. About the saunas...Usually finnish sauna is 70-100C, some are hotter like very large saunas (20 and plus person) and smokesaunas (savusauna), they can be easily 120C. And yes, savusaunas are common and nowadays even a little bit growing thing.



  20. Isn't the temperature in a smoke sauna usually much lower than in a regular sauna, not higher? I've only been to a smoke sauna twice in my life, and the last time was quite a few years ago, so my memory might fail me, but my impression is that the air was not so hot as usually and it felt kind of softer or milder than in a regular sauna. It would also be logical that the temperature is lower because you can't heat a smoke sauna any more after you have let out the smoke and there are people in the sauna while in a regular wood heated sauna with a smoke pipe you can continue heating also when there are people inside.

  21. Quite the conversation here about saunas! Well, it is good to know that lots of people are into this. I’m also a big fan of sauna. Before I had my home sauna, I used to go to public baths to experience the relaxing feel of heat and steam. But I want to experience it in the comforts of my home, so I decided to install one. I must say that it’s one of the reasons why I look forward to going home after work.

  22. Absolutely brilliant. thank you for sharing this post with us!! it was thoroughly enjoyed.