Some like it hot; Finns head to the sauna for soothing, dry heat.
By the time Maija Mard moved to the United States when she was 14, the sauna
was already part of her life.
Like most Finns, relatives in her native country had sweat baths in their homes, and the steel mill where her father worked provided them for workers and their families.
Now 66 and living in Lunenburg, Mard has a sauna in her house, as do many people with Finnish roots living in Central Massachusetts. The soothing, dry heat of the sauna and the long tradition surrounding it warms their hearts - and just about every other aspect of their being.
"It's part of our culture, very much," Mard said.
Many cultures in the Middle Ages used sweat baths to cleanse, including American Indians, who built sweat lodges for the purpose. While the practice died out in much of Europe, it continued in Finland, where the sauna is considered as much a necessity as a luxury. In earlier times, many women gave birth there. Now, half the world's sauna sales are in Finland. In a country of 5 million people, there are 3 million saunas.
Traditionally, saunas were heated by wood, though today natural gas, electricity and oil are also used to fuel the stoves. The temperature in a sauna typically ranges from 170 to 230 degrees Fahrenheit, and water is thrown on rocks on top of the stove to increase humidity. When users become too warm, they shower, swim or even roll in the snow to cool off. Then they return to the sauna and repeat the cycle, sometimes for hours.
Ask local Finns about sauna, and the first thing they will tell you is how to pronounce it. It's sowna, not sawna. After that, they're happy to answer all your questions, and might even invite you to their home for the genuine experience.
Joyce and Lloyd Hannula's place in Westminster, built about 30 years ago, includes a sauna heated by wood, a shower and a dressing room. They cool down by jumping into their swimming pool.
"I find it very relaxing. It just seems to do wonders for me," said Lloyd Hannula, 70, adding, "It's a good place to go contemplate ... I can solve every world problem."
That last statement might not be too much of a stretch.
Finnish President Urho Kekkonen, who died in 1986, called sauna "the great leveler." He often talked with other leaders and diplomats in the sauna, subscribing to the theory that "it's pretty hard to be dishonest when you're totally naked. There's nothing to hide and nowhere to hide it."
The Finns observe a certain code of conduct in the sauna. While they might not strictly adhere to the old saying, "In the sauna, one must behave as one would in church," swearing is considered rude, and arguments and controversial topics are avoided. (Obviously, users of the sauna at one local YMCA did not get the memo, since heated discussions about sports, politics and even the weather are often the norm.)
Janna and Sauli Savukoski's home in Fitchburg has two saunas, an electric one in the basement, which is primarily used in the winter, and one in a cabin on the banks of Falulah Brook.
The sauna in the cabin is heated by wood and the refurbished building includes a shower, changing room and sitting room with its own fireplace.
About an hour before my visit, Sauli Savukoski, a 61-year-old tool and die maker, started the wood stove in the cabin, and after we entered the sauna he gave me the seat of honor, in the upper "hot corner" of the room, while he ladled water onto the hot stones on the stove. The resulting spike in humidity initially pierced my skin like needles, but the sting faded as the steam dissipated, leaving me comfortably hot.
In another 15 minutes or so, comfortably hot became uncomfortably hot, and Savukoski led the way down the stone steps to a cold, natural pool in the brook, where we lingered for several minutes before returning to the sauna. After session No. 2, we cooled off in the sitting room, where Savukoski served beer, and after a few final minutes in the sauna, we plunged into the brook one last time and finished with a cleansing shower.
I felt loose, relaxed and clean inside and out. But the Savukoskis had more hospitality to offer. They invited me into the house, where Janna served coffee, sandwiches and Finnish pancakes, a custard-like concoction with maple syrup, all by candlelight.
And before I left, they said I could return for another sauna, anytime.
PHOTOG: (1, 2, 4, 5, 6 AND 7) PHOTOGRAPHY/JIM COLLINS; (3) PHOTOGRAPHY/TOM RETTIG
CUTLINE: (1) Sauli Savukoski, above, in his sauna in Fitchburg. The stove heats stones. Water is splashed on the stones to create steam. (2) At right, the journal "Saunakirja" is at Savukoski's sauna. (3) Joyce and Lloyd Hannula enjoy the sauna at their house in Westminster. (4) Clockwise from top left, the natural pool behind Sauli Savukoski's sauna is ideal for cooling off. (5) The wood-fired sauna stove is fueled through a stove door opening into the entryway outside. (6) Water thrown on rocks in the sauna increases humidity. (7) Sauli Savukoski's sauna is in the ell on the left; at right is a lounge area with a view of the stream and natural pool where people jump in to cool off after the sauna.