I am sitting naked on a high wooden bench in a darkened bunker. The stranger sitting next to me, also naked, is beating my back with a handful of frozen birch branches. My face is on fire as an enormous blast of hot steam envelopes the two of us and others nearby.
A surreal sadist nightmare?
No — just a fairly typical scene during Christmas Eve in Finland.
Christmas Eve is the most popular day of the year at Kotiharjun Sauna, one of Helsinki’s few public saunas with a traditional wood-fired furnace.
I came to visit my son Leif who is studying abroad in Finland, and we decided to celebrate Christmas Eve with a traditional Finnish custom.
There’s something magical about this sauna.
I don’t understand a word of Finnish but each time the door opens to this Dickensian inferno, another naked woman appears. She shouts something indecipherable to the Nordic goddesses around me that sounds like, “Haluatko minun kääntyä löysä lohikäärmeen?” I think this must mean, “Do you want me to turn loose the dragon?”
To which comes a chorus of replies, “Kyllä kiitos, emme voi saada tarpeeksi, että kuuma lohikäärme hengitys,” which means something like, “Yes please, we can’t get enough of that hot dragon breath.”
Each naked newcomer reaches up towards the top of the furnace yanking down on a lever thus releasing a tsunami of water. The sudden, skin-scorching steam momentarily obliterates my ability to see the dozens of other naked bodies assembled in various states of quiet submission around me.
What I think of as dragon’s breath the Finns actually call “löyly.” Löyly originally means “spirit of life,” but is interpreted as “a cloud of sauna steam” released to purify the body and calm the mind.
Löyly — and more specifically sauna — is how many Finns begin their Christmas Eve celebrations which tells you a lot about the Finnish practice of physical and mental cleansing.
The relationship between Finns and their saunas goes back more than one thousand years.
In addition to purifying the mind, “taking sauna” has been credited with driving out diseases. Decades ago women gave birth in saunas and there are tales of tumultuous lovers reconciling differences in an enveloping blast of löyly.
The ratio of saunas to Finns these days is one sauna for every 2.75 people.
There are more saunas than cars in Finland which makes sauna kind of hard to avoid. But then again, why would you want to?
Most public saunas disappeared with the introduction of shared saunas in apartment buildings, but Kotiharjun Sauna still operates daily. Built in 1928 in the heart of Helsinki’s Kallio district (an old workers neighborhood) it doesn’t appear to have changed much since then.
Today there’s a free Christmas Eve drink offered and between visits to the sauna I help myself to a Finnish beer. I sip on the beer as I glance through the photos in a Finnish magazine about (what else?) – saunas.
Eager for another round of Finnish cleansing my son and I return a few days later for a pre-flight sauna before my departure home.
The woman behind the check-in counter smiles, “weren’t you here a few days ago?” She asks, seemingly pleased to see us again. Contrary to popular stereotypes she is eager to talk to us about Finnish culture.
“Were you surprised at how talkative the men are in the sauna?” She asks Leif about his Christmas Eve experience.
Leif nods. It was a surprise given the reputation Finns have for being reserved.
“The sauna is the only place Finnish men talk,” she says laughing, “and it’s because they don’t have their wives and girlfriends talking to them, telling them what to say or think!”
Legend says that the most important decisions are made in saunas. According to Visit Finland, taking sauna together offers the opportunity for special bonding experiences which have no sexual overtones. I can see firsthand how saunas deliver total mental relaxation, clearing the mind of unnecessary clutter.
As I come downstairs ready to say my goodbyes Leif comes out of the men’s locker room.
My send-off from Finland couldn’t have been more moving…as Leif heads outside for a beer I notice a stray birch leaf on his shoulder, and as he emerges into the frigid winter air the dragon retreats back into the hot layers of weathered wood.