Sauna – authentic experience of local culture

Pädaste Manor by Kai Tomasberg

Saturday is sauna day.

I remember my father preparing carefully for the sauna every Saturday. It was a must; a ritual to follow every single week. The preparation started with bringing firewood and cleaning the stove in the morning, going to the woods to cut fresh birch branches for the sauna. I think I am not wrong calling Saturday a cleaning day as it was in my childhood. First the house was cleaned, I remember as a child I had to clean the stairs and corridors while others were busy in other rooms of the house. Well, my father wasn’t part of our cleaning team; he had to take care of the sauna. It was a privilege and it took him hours to heat it.

When every corner was neat and tidy, the rooms ventilated and smelling fresh, it was time for people to get clean too – from the outside as well as the inside. Sauna ritual purified both – the body and the soul. No work was done afterwards.

It is difficult to tell where and when the sauna culture started. Internationally it is acknowledged that the sauna tradition was invented in Finland. Although I am an Estonian, I don’t mind to leave credits to the Finns. What difference does it really make? We share the same sauna culture with slightly different traditions with many other European countries. The main idea of the sauna is the same everywhere but each culture has its odd and sometimes weird additions that foreigners find hard to understand.

Why odd? I call it odd and complicated to explain beating (or gently whisking) yourself and companions with birch twigs (viht in est.; vihta in fin.) or jumping into snow or ice cold water. Also sitting and sweating in extremely hot temperatures, scrubbing the skin with salt or covering it with sticky honey may not seem appealing to everybody. Many European countries have public saunas with a strict requirement – only for naked! You have to ignore the uncomfortable feeling of being exposed to strangers and just enjoy the sauna experience. That is easier said than done, I think, at least for people with different cultural background. Going naked to the sauna can be seen as a private act, enjoyed only together with the close family members, friends or alone. In spa sauna centres swimwear is required and nakedness is left for private saunas. This is how it was and still is in Estonia. But all that is called sauna experience and it is good for your health!

As a child, I didn’t like the heat so much, my mom asked me to sit on the lowest sauna bench, especially when “leil” (löyly in fin.) was created. Leil is the hot steam produced by water thrown on the hot stones of the sauna stove. I remember that wave of extremely hot air burning my skin and prinking in my nose while inhaling. I had to close my eyes, hold my breath and wait for the wave to pass. “Hüva leili!” is what Estonians wish to people going to the sauna. It means that the sauna must be well prepared and hot enough, only then you can get a real “leil” experience!

Kai Tomasberg, lecturer of Spa Management

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