It is a ritual, even a rite, to which the population sacrifices at least once a week: the culture of the sauna in Finland made its entry Thursday on the list of the Intangible Heritage of Unesco.
“Sauna culture in Finland is an integral part of the life of the majority of the Finnish population (…) (and) involves much more than the simple fact of washing,” the institution defended in a statement.
With some three million saunas for 5.5 million inhabitants, the steam room is an institution that dates back several hundred years in the Nordic country.
Ubiquitous in homes, apartments and local swimming pools, they attract Finns of all ages who come to release stress at around 85 ° C through all the pores of the skin.
Over the years, the sauna has also established itself as a diplomatic tool: Finnish leaders have regularly invited their counterparts to it.
During the Cold War, President Urho Kekkonen, pioneer of “sauna diplomacy”, negotiated there in the simplest form – the sauna is practiced naked in Finland – with Soviet diplomats.
In 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin also had to drop the towel in the company of the husband of his Finnish counterpart Tarja Halonen.
This practice, however, has come under criticism for excluding women – men and women being separated.
In winter, the sauna is often followed by a dip in the icy waters of one of the approximately 180,000 lakes that cover the country, a ritual that many followers say improves health and mental well-being.
Studies in Finland have argued that regular sauna use may reduce the risk of stroke – although doctors recommend that people with heart problems avoid the extreme temperatures of steam rooms.
The word “sauna” is one of the few in the Finnish language to be used internationally. According to some sources, its name originally referred to hot stones over which water is thrown to create steam.
For eleven years, the sauna even had its endurance world championship contested every year with, as in 2010, a sometimes fatal outcome for the candidates immersed in an atmosphere of 110 degrees.
In 2019, the country also took back from China the world record for the most nationalities inside a sauna at the same time. Bathers from 101 different countries bonded to each other in a sauna in Helsinki.