It might seem like every day in Finland is Sauna Day— the majority of the population owns at least one, and residents of the Nordic country invented the steamy room more than 2,000 years ago as an extension of their homes. But on March 12, Helsinki will take its sultry tradition to the streets with its inaugural Sauna Day, an event where homes and businesses open their private saunas for public use, free of charge. The 30 or so saunas that will open for the day run the gamut of interesting places to bask in the heat, beckoning Finns to yurts, islands, rooftops and even an old castle to soak in the hot, humid tradition.
Yhteismaa, the social innovations group running the March event, specializes in unique celebrations. They’ve already organized several other festivals in Helsinki, including a market day where residents cleaned out their houses and sold their stuff in a citywide outdoor flea market, a living room gallery event that turned living rooms into art showcases, and a sauna theater festival where plays were performed inside the saunas.
“During the last five years, there’s kind of a mood in Helsinki,” Jaakko Blomberg, the man who founded Yhteismaa, told Smithsonian.com. “People want to do stuff together. Usually Finns are quite shy and not that social, but at the same time there’s a need for this kind of action. Summer has it, but summer is really short in Finland. What are we going to do the rest of the year? What spaces can you use when it’s too cold outside?”
Saunas, of course. There are about three million saunas in Finland—and only five million Finns. The hotbox rooms are a Finnish tradition, a gathering place for a typically reserved nation where anyone can talk about anything with anybody and where, according to Blomberg, all important decisions are made.
The original Finnish saunas appeared in about the fifth century as a sweat bath called “smoke saunas” dug into hillsides. Back then, stones were heated in a wood fireplace and smoke from the fire filled the room. Once it was hot enough, owners let the smoke out the door and everyone piled in. Blomberg says that once saunas became freestanding buildings and ventilation arrived, nearly everything started to be done in the sauna, from heating and preserving food to giving birth.
“Often when you moved to a new area, it was not the house that you built first, but the sauna,” he said. “You can use the sauna for everything, but not the house.”
Modern saunas are no longer smoky lodges—they’re generally either wood-heated or electric, and when stones atop the sauna stove are hot enough, water is ladled on to create steam. You don’t wait for the smoke to clear; rather, you soak in the steam.
Saunas may be universal in Finland, but the process changes whether you’re in a city or out in a cottage, Blomberg says. In his apartment sauna in the city, he and his friends go for three rounds—in the sauna for a bit, then a break for beer, then back in the sauna, another break, then one more round of heat. “You have some breaks so you can stay longer in sauna,” he said. “You don’t just go for a few minutes. It’s more about taking time and relaxing, not something to do in a rush.”
In the country, the tradition is even more involved. People cook sauna makkara (sausage) over the wood-burning sauna stoves. They smack one another with bundled birch branches on special occasions to relax muscles, perk up skin and relieve mosquito bites. And in the winter, during sauna breaks, they jump in an ice hole or roll in the snow.
But no matter where you are, city or country cottage, be prepared to bare it all. “You have to be naked,” Blomberg said. “Everyone is on the same level. All the pretenses are gone.”
In Case You Miss It: Can't make it to Helsinki for Sauna Day? Don’t worry. The city has several year-round public ones available.