Panen sauna kütte (I will heat up the sauna)
“The principle of the sauna is simple. One room is heated up to the point where water in the bucket starts boiling. Then naked people climb onto a special wooden platform and wait. From time to time, they throw boiling water on the stove and whip themselves with birch branches. After an hour or so, the sauna goers are so heated up that they can quite calmly walk around naked in freezing weather, or even take a dip in icy water. They feel cold only a few days later…“This is how Rohke Debelakk in Hilarious Estonians describes one of the main characteristics of Estonian lifestyle.
It does not matter whether Estonia holds the Presidency in the EU Council, or whether the country celebrates a holiday like the approaching centennial festivities of the proclamation of the country’s independence - the sauna has a special role in Estonian life.
It is even part of the Folk Festivals like the Viljandi Folk - there is a sauna area near the stage and, between listening to Mali songs and legends, or rock by the band Metsatoll, or the Nikn Suns, Estonians jump into the sauna.
As Finland is celebrating its hundredth anniversary since the proclamation of independence already this year, the Viru Folk, dedicated to the event, will see Finns and Estonians plunging in saunas. Together! The unity between the two nations just cannot be more pronounced.
A village in Kasmu in the Nature Park Lahemaa has gone further in worshipping the sauna - they opened the first-ever Sauna street, where even the most experienced steam-bathing enthusiasts can get excited by the numerous saunas on the street before dipping into the cold waves of the Baltic Sea. On the small beach, half-naked people choose among the different saunas brought there by the Kadrina Sauna Club, which is considered the best and the most famous sauna organisation in all of Estonia. The uniquely shaped sauna boat or the Barrel sauna and the Barrel bath in the Paris Holiday Village are full of people the whole day. And then here comes a sauna truck, a big Soviet-type colourful truck with cosy wooden sauna rooms inside it is ready to drive anywhere in Estonia for a party to be thrown.
One of the most popular saunas, however, is of course, the Jarva-jaani Old Equipment Shelter’s fire-truck sauna – one of the most legendary mobile saunas in Estonia - every Estonian has to see it once in his or her lifetime.
Why is the sauna so important in the life of Estonia?
Well, it is about the communication. It takes people usually quite a while to warm up for a conversation. Having created Skype for others and amid the vast opportunities of digital communication, Estonians socialise less, and this is where the sauna comes in. When sitting naked together in a dark wooden room, the most sociable thing to do is to “take the heat“and enjoy the good company surrounded by nature – there is nothing more refreshing and invigorating than this 800-year old tradition.
Estonians have even preserved the most ancient tradition of sauna, the smoke sauna, which is the most Estonian way of using the sauna in the country. Rural saunas have no chimneys, so the smoke circulates during the heating process. The last smoke is let out through the door or a hole in the wall. It is also viewed as the most romantic sauna – people wash in the dark, the only light comes from a candle glimmering on a small window. For newcomers to the Estonian sauna, the experience of whipping may be perhaps better described in the vocabulary as “whisking” or “gentle beating“, a healthy exfoliation with birch or juniper twigs for even a stronger experience.
The smoke sauna of Vorumaa in southern Estonia is included in the UNESCO Cultural Heritage. The Estonian winter capital, Otepaa, has even played host to the World`s biggest sauna marathon. I feel that the sauna will play an important role in the centennial celebrations!
Being an art historian by education, sometimes while sitting in the sauna, my thoughts, I feel, go to the glamorous baroque castles, for example, in Versailles, France, where special tools were created for noble people to scratch the dirt from their bodies and hundreds of litres of perfume were poured over their clothes to quench the putrid stench. At the same time, Estonian farmers were sitting in small heated rooms, relaxing, getting clean and using this everyday luxury without considering it any luxury. The welcoming phrase while visiting friends or the grandparents in the countryside were -and still are - “panen sauna kütte” (I will heat up the sauna). This means nothing else but enjoying time together, churning out some good thoughts, eating, drinking, and catching up with the news. There is nothing better after a long day than to rub yourself with a mixture of honey and salt and enjoy „leil“, a hot steam emerging when water is thrown on the stove stones. Finding an equivalent expression in any other language for „leil” can be a tough task. In reality, it means bathing in hot steam, using birch twigs for whisking. The twigs, at the same time, can be used for a gentle massage and add a nice aroma to the air. Leil has many benefits, doing its magic by expanding your bronchi and sinking you into a relaxed feeling. There is also a popular Estonian saying: One hour after the sauna, women look the most beautiful ever.
Simply speaking, Estonians cannot live without saunas. On Sauna street in Kasmu, one of the music bands used their tent sauna during the intermissions and watched the sunset in the heat, while some Finnish music bands were adding a cultural sound. The sauna tent is an important element of their touring that can’t be missed.
Certainly, there are more things uniting Estonians and Finns than the sauna, but, no doubt, it remains one of the most pleasant events for both centennials.
Now, preparing the sauna to spend some time with my friends in it and writing lines, I feel confident that Estonia’s national affinity with the sauna will continue for maybe the next 800 years and will definitely be an enjoyable and the most marvellous! - activity for visitors when they come to participate in the centenary celebrations in 2018!
Thea Karin is an Estonian art historian and journalist