Finland state

Finland feels the cold as a Putin-fueled energy crisis threatens the country’s sauna culture

To Löyly Public Sauna In Helsinki, sweat runs down a group of tourists as they watch locals bicker over the weather. Periodically balls of water are thrown from a bucket into the coals of the sauna to produce the all-important steam associated with this Nordic tradition – and the mercury rises.

A man insists that two water balls be thrown on the embers to increase the heat; another says three or four. Disagreements are good, but it’s no joke: for Finns, the sauna ritual is sacred.

“Once I asked a lady to stop raising the temperature; she told me that if I couldn’t stand the heat, I should go out and join the kids in the cooler sauna,” said Löyly visitor Leena Karppinen, public relations manager in Helsinki. After a pause, she adds: “Finnish children are also very used to the sauna of course. We started welcoming my baby to join us in the family sauna from the age of four months. This is perfectly normal.

The sauna routine is strict. Scorching hot spells are interspersed with short cold showers, or here in Löyly, a quick jump off the bridge into the freezing Baltic Sea. Even when the water freezes in January, a hole is drilled to access through the ice.

Two people take a cold bath in a lake after a sauna session in Rovaniemi, Finland (Photo: Olivier MORIN/AFP/Getty)

Traditionally fueled by wood fires – which have frequently burned down homes and, at times, entire streets – the saunas of Finland are now more commonly heated with electricity, although most Finns will agree that wood heating is far superior. Temperatures are maintained between 70 and 110°C and humidity between 5 and 20%, thanks to the splashing of water on the hot stones.

Far from being the luxury we associate ourselves with spa time In Western Europe, Finns see saunas as a necessary comfort, part of their health routine and an important base for socializing during the long winter months. There are an estimated three million in Finland – a country of just 5.5 million people – and the sauna is part of the week for most families.

Today, the ongoing energy crisis – which is hitting Finland particularly hard due to strained relations with its Russian neighbors – threatens to leave the Finns behind. As part of a conscious national effort to reduce energy consumption, a new government campaign is asking citizens to save on their sauna time.

The advocacy is part of a wider ‘Down a Degree’ initiative which also calls on people to turn off heating thermostats and plays on Finnish ‘sisu’ – the idea that Finns are a stoic and hardy who “have the inner capacity to tolerate the cold”.

Sauna Löyly in Helsinki, Finland (Photo: MyHelsinki)

“It’s built in us,” reads a media campaign that has aired from October 10 since last month. “Babies can take a nap outside and we relax by soaking in ice cold water…Let’s just be cool and keep a cool head, to make sure there’s enough energy for us all.”

Before heat lovers sweat, it should be noted that the difficulties are relative.

“We’re not suggesting that people should ditch the sauna altogether this winter – it’s more about asking citizens to sauna together as a family rather than separately, or to go to shared saunas instead of using your own sauna. private all the time,” says Outi Haanperä, a project manager working on the campaign.

“People understand that we need to reduce our energy consumption and [less] the sauna is part of the solution,” she says.

While the vast majority of energy in Finland is spent on heating homes, saunas have also taken priority, alone accounting for 5.5% of total household electricity consumption.

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Households use 50% more electricity for saunas than for cooking (1,230 gigawatt hours versus 798) and a similar amount for lighting (1,512 GWh). Looking at energy consumption as a whole (electricity, gas, wood and other fuels), saunas account for much more, totaling 3,063 GWh on average.

With Finns increasingly concerned about their energy use – and some areas have been told to prepare for power cuts this winter – households are unlikely to give up their right to a sauna anytime soon, because activity is not considered a luxury.

“Luxury is something rare and exclusive, something you can’t have or experience too often, but many saunas every night; most at least once a week,” says Hannele Kauppinen-Räisänen, sauna researcher at the University of Helsinki. “My family and I have three saunas between us: an electric and a wooden one at home, and a wooden one in our summer house,” she adds.

Jarkko Sjoeblom, 39, from Finland, his wife Annika Marjatta Sjoeblom, 38, and their sons Kasper, 6, and Pyry, 7, pose in their sauna in Vaasa, Finland (Photo: OLIVIER MORIN/Getty)

Experts are unsure where exactly saunas originated from – although several northern countries claim the tradition, which is believed to have originated around 2000 BC. Only a few generations ago Finnish mothers gave birth in saunas – many Finns sitting around the stove in Löyly will tell of grandparents who were born and literally died in the sauna.

Kauppinen-Räisänen’s research demonstrates how “the sauna has had many meanings for Finns. Today, it’s the place for socializing and healing,” she says. “You could throw a sauna party for a friend who is getting married. The sauna is for everything and for all occasions. You will hardly ever hear someone say that they don’t do a sauna.

While public swimming pools and gyms won’t go so far as to shut down their saunas completely to ease the current crisis, Haanperä says that “some in Helsinki are turning the temperature down during the less busy hours, or they don’t have their most warm from them [multiple] hot saunas, only the mildest”.

She hopes, however, that the experience can lead to greater awareness of energy consumption and longer-term resources: “If anything positive were to come out of this crisis, it would be for the public to have a better understanding energy demands and the importance of supply and price,” she says. “But there are other ways to go down a degree than forgoing a sauna.”