Christmas Sauna Traces Ancient Roots

Warming up the sauna on Christmas Eve is a tradition in many Finnish households. Finns bathed in saunas long before the arrival of Christianity, but the sauna also carries many Christmas traditions.

Jouluisesta puhdistautumisesta voi tehdä hyvinkin hartaan. Image: Pentti Kallinen

Though no one knows exactly when the first saunas in Finland were constructed, the earliest saunas were probably simple holes in the ground, as can be guessed from the etymology of “sauna.” The word means a heated hole or foxhole.

According to researcher Juha Nirkko from the Finnish Literature Society, the sauna has been a church, pharmacy, bathing place and social room, among other things, for Finns. Its popularity is of course also related to the cold climate of Finland, where such a method for washing comes in handy.

The sauna also forms an integral part of Finnish Christmas celebrations. Traditionally this was a time to rest, eat heartily and cleanse oneself. In Finland sauna has been the method of choice for such cleansing, which was especially important on Christmas Eve.

According to Nirkko, it is preferable to visit the sauna in the afternoon of the Eve, as household members should bathe before the spirits. Observing such an order is important not to incur the wrath of the dead. Indeed, in Finnish tradition elves, gnomes and dead family members have all been given their own turn for bathing in the sauna.

Other old traditions include throwing beer on the sauna stove in order to help bring about a good harvest in the following year. Spells and prayers were also said in the sauna to achieve spiritual purification along with physical cleanliness.

Nirkko published a book on the Finnish sauna and its traditions earlier this year.