Finland’s sauna culture has been inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The sauna tradition is in good company on the list with for example Indian yoga, Beijing Opera, Argentinian tango, Turkish coffee ceremony and Iranian rug making.
Unesco’s intangible living cultural heritage refers to practices, representations, expressions,
knowledge and know-how. They have been transmitted by means of oral traditions, performing arts, social life practices, rituals and festivities, or nature and the universe. The aim is to raise awareness and protect the significance of important aspects of cultural heritage worldwide.
Finland signed Unesco’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013. The preparations for adding Sauna to the list started a couple of years later. The sauna tradition is the first aspect of Finnish culture to make the prestigious list.
Eat, sleep and go to sauna
It is hard to overstate the importance of the sauna in Finnish culture. It is an integral part of the lives of the majority of the Finnish population. In a sauna, people cleanse their bodies and minds and embrace a sense of inner peace. It is actually a state of mind rather than a ritual of getting clean.
The traditions of sauna bathing are repeated over and again in Finnish songs, mythology and storytelling tradition. People were born in sauna, they have thrashed out their lives in sauna. Furthermore, they have washed their dearest for their last rites in sauna.
Going to sauna has also been integral parts of festivities for ages. For example, midsummer sauna and Christmas sauna.
In a press release announcing the inscription, UNESCO wrote of the importance of the sauna in Finnish culture.
“Traditionally, the sauna has been considered as a sacred space – a “church of nature”. At the heart of the experience lies löyly, the spirit or steam released by casting water onto a stack of heated stones,” the UN body said in a statement.
The sauna is an inseparable element of Finnish diplomacy throughout the world. It is part of Finland’s country brand. Furthermore, it has been utilised in both political and business decision-making for many decades. Nearly all Finnish embassies have saunas. There relations with local movers and shakers are cultivated. A sauna is one of the essentials of Finnish embassies.
Apparently, in the past, President Martti Ahtisaari, the Finnish Nobel Peace Prize laureate of 2008, has used sauna diplomacy successfully. He has operated in many parts of the world, from Africa to Asia, from Tanzania to Indonesia. One of the most famous stories of sauna diplomacy is from 1978. Then a Soviet Union delegation arrived in Finland to discuss possible joint military exercises. However, then-President Urho Kekkonen used the sauna evening to distract the guests and circumvent the uncomfortable topic.
With 3.3 million saunas in a country of 5.5 million inhabitants, the element is readily accessible to all. Almost 90 per cent of the Finns go to sauna once a week. Traditionally, Saturdays were sauna days, but today Finns go to the sauna any day of the week. There are about 200 million visits to the sauna annually.
Traditional public saunas in cities almost disappeared after the 1950s. In recent years, new public saunas have been constructed thanks to private initiatives. In 2018, Finnish public sauna Löyly in Helsinki made Time Magazine‘s first-ever list of the World’s Greatest Places.
The Finnish sauna is not the first sauna-connected item on the Unesco heritage list. Estonia gained the recognition for the smoke sauna tradition of Võrumaa already in 2013. At that time somewhat bitter comments like ”stealing the sauna” were heard in Finland. Saunas and similar heated spaces are well known in many cultures throughout history. However, Finland is unique in the way sauna has become a key part of everyday life also in modern times. Therefore, it is fair to say that no other nation can rival the Finnish sauna madness.
In addition to the reputation and honour that the inscription brings, Finland will be responsible for protecting the sauna cultural tradition in the future.