The waiting period has been a long one but now, at last, it happens. The Finnish act of taking a sauna bath is heading to Unesco’s list of intangible human heritage. This elevates the sauna tradition on the global scale to the categories of, say, Indian yoga, Beijing Opera, Argentinian tango, Turkish coffee ceremony ja Iranian rug making.
One of the main protagonists of this project, Ms. Ritva Ohmeroluoma from The Finnish Sauna Society, feels relieved. ”It took four years’ of work to bring the result”, she says. ”When we embarked on this a long time ago, we had no idea how long and arduous this process would be.”
Ms. Ohmeroluoma gives the telephone interview in the middle on something right and proper for the subject. She sits by the sea in Lauttasaari suburb of Helsinki, waiting for the Sauna Society’s famous saunas to warm up.
Finland signed Unesco’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013. The preparations for making it to the list were started a couple of years later.
There were, however, many bureaucratic snags on the road. At first The Finnish Heritage Agency had to create a national catalogue of living heritage. Thus far approximately 60 Finnish traditions have been chosen. In addition to sauna bathing the catalogue includes Finnish tango, open-air dance and the knitting of rag rugs.
From this catalogue Finland can propose one item each year.
Sauna bathing was the first one.
It was not hard to find arguments to convince the committee of 24 country representatives. 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 and they have washed their dearest for their last rites in sauna.
And the tradition lives very strong even nowadays: almost 90 per cent of the Finns go to sauna once a week and there are approximately 3,2 million saunas in the country.
No wonder, then, that the prestigious committee of Unesco was impressed.
In spite of that, it was not easy to formulate the 25-page application. It was decided to give this task to the Finnish Sauna Society.
After this decision had been taken, the Ministry of Education and Culture granted financial aid for the Society to be able to recruit one person to complete the application. It became the common cause for sauna associations in various parts of the country. The draft was commented by sauna enthusiasts in Oulu, Tampere and Lappeenranta, among others.
One of the tricky questions haunting the writers of the application was how to differentiate the Finnish sauna from the Central European warmth chambers.
The solution was the sound of water thrown on the hot stones in any Finnish sauna. This sound was repeated on the video sent to Unesco.
Nudity was another challenge. The Finnish Heritage Agency gathered an international test group and read its members the first draft compiled by the Sauna Society. The result was crystal clear: it was not a worthwhile idea to use the word naked at all in the final application text.
”Nudity in the sauna is, of course, natural for the Finns. Internationally, it’s a different story”, Ms. Ohmeroluoma says.
”So we wrote that the Finns go to sauna without clothing.”
Naked skin was censured heavily also from the photos added to the application. One cannot see breasts or buttocks neither in the photos nor in the video, not to mention genitals. Naked children are nowhere to be seen.
Ms Ohmeroluoma believes that without assistance the heritage list would have remained a pipe dream.
”The help was irreplaceable. We were not able to consider all the nuances and without outside help the application would certainly have been turned down.”
The preparation of the application took ten months, and in the last days work lasted late into the night. Still in the final stages one photo deemed too daring was replaced with one Ms. Ohmeroluoma digged from her cellphone.
It is a picture of her own favorite sauna: the home beach sauna on the shores of Lake Saimaa.
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.
Senior Specialist Leena Marsio from the Finnish Heritage Agency thinks that the success of the neighbor does not hurt Finland. ”This list is different from Unesco’s World Heritage List. Intangible list makes people’s, communities’ or groups’ different cultural heritage visible. The list can include, say, many different puppet theatres. Also these different sauna bathing traditions differ from each other in a fine way. The Estonians have listed the smoke sauna tradition of one region, we have the whole sauna bathing culture”, she says.
”People go to saunas elsewhere in the world, as well, but based on numbers, no other nation can rival the Finnish sauna madness. People here eat, sleep and go to saunas.”
Before the latest decisions Unesco had listed 549 intangible culture heritage items from 127 countries. Now there are about 50 listed items more.
Ms. Marsio has been involved with the Finnish sauna application from the start. Now she’s going to put her energy to the next Finnish heritage items to be offered to the list.
The first deals with the violin playing tradition from Kaustinen and Finland is also participating in the application concerning the Nordic clinker-built boat. The decisions are expected in one year.
Before that it’s time to reap the benefits from the fresh accomplishment. As part of the application the sauna community had defined a whole host of protective measures to support the vitality of sauna traditions.
To support these measures, a special organization called Saunarinki was formed. It is an open network for everybody active on this field. The Finnish Heritage Agency has granted the Finnish Sauna Society financial assistance to start the operations.
”The purpose is to use this network to consider, how the sauna heritage can be promoted. It can mean organizing events and information activities”, Ms. Marsio thinks.
The Finnish Heritage Agency is also preparing the protection of three public saunas based on special law. These are Kotiharju sauna and Arla sauna in Helsinki and Rajaportti sauna in Tampere.
Thought is also given to utilizing the Unesco recognition in marketing. ”There will undoubtedly be tourism-related benefits. Sauna and löyly (throwing water on hot stones) are the only Finnish words known the world over and this strengthens our reputation as the land of sauna”, Ms. Marsio says.
Ms. Ohmeroluoma from the Sauna Society has plans to celebrate the success of the project in a natural way: by going to sauna. She tells how her own sauna journey got under way in public saunas in the city of Mikkeli in early 1950s.
”Pretty quickly it became a ritual for me and that ritual has continued for the rest of my life”, she says.
Memories of childhood sauna visits in the village of Lievestuore have stayed vivid in her mind. Her dad, an inventive person, had installed loudspeakers in the sauna.
”And there we went, to the sauna, and listened to Lauantain toivotut (the popular radio show playing the tunes wished by the listeners). And drank juice and ate sausages.”
The text was translated from Finnish to English by Jyri Raivio. Tuomas Niskakangas also assisted in the process.