The sauna has always been very important to Finns. It's part of our national identity. There's also a sauna association, which maintains a library of sauna-related books and publishes a sauna magazine.
At the beginning, the sauna was a room where there was a pile of stones on top of a furnace. People sat naked, sweating on a bench, and threw water on the hot stones, which made hot steam. After all the sweating, they cooled off and then washed themselves.
Nowadays, there sometimes are different rooms for washing up. Nothing else has really changed, although the stones are no longer on top of a furnace, but a kiuas (a sauna heater).
The sauna has always been very important to Finnish people. Since it was associated with cleanliness and the opportunity to use warm water, the sauna was used for everything! It was a place for the beginning of life and also the end of it. Women went there to give birth, and the dead bodies were taken there to be washed.
Sick people were treated in a sauna, and even today when people catch a cold, they go to a sauna in order to get better.
The sauna was often the first home of people who were waiting for their real apartments to be completed. The sauna was also used to smoke meat.
In the winter, people like to first sit in the sauna, and then run outside and jump into the snow! Then they run back inside again.
Finnish people use a bundle of birch branches to hit themselves while in the sauna. It doesn't hurt, but it has a massaging and a skin cleaning effect. It is called vasta in eastern Finland and vihta in western Finland. There are also two different ways of making it, depending on the local custom.
An old Finnish saying is “Saunassa ollaan kuin kirkossa” – “be in a sauna as in a church.” It denotes that the sauna is a place to relax. A person shouldn't rampage. He also shouldn't use swear words, unless he wants to make the sauna elf angry.
When a Finn gets a foreign visitor, he must be taken to the sauna, so that the visitor can truly experience Finland. The only problem is that the nakedness seems to be an issue with foreigners. For the cowards out there, towels are available.
Nowadays, there are more and more electrical sauna heaters, but everyone loves the original wood heaters more.
Some say a person shouldn't go to the sauna cranky or bad-tempered, but sitting in the sauna makes people feel a lot better. Even ten minutes helps to ease anger or bad feelings.
The sauna has always been a place to relax, just as an old Finnish saying says: “Kun soivat kiukaan mustat urut, unohtuvat arjen surut” - “When the black organs of the sauna stove plays, so the sorrows of the day go away.”