Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Declaring the Christmas peace — joulurauha

One beautiful Finnish tradition Ive just learned about is declaring a Christmas peace, the joulurauha, which has roots back to the 13th century. Once this tradition was common to all the Nordic countries, but only in Finland has it been maintained, almost uninterruptedly, to this day.

In Turku, an old town which is the former capital of Finland, a special ceremony is held to declare a period of Christmas peace. This begins at noon on Christmas Eve and lasts for 20 days. The ceremony includes a hymn, the Finnish national anthem and other music. And its televised — many Finns watch the event on TV as the bells of Turku Cathedral ring.

The declaration is given in Finnish and Swedish. 
Translated into English, it would be:
"Tomorrow, God willing,
is the graceful celebration of the birth of our Lord and Saviour;
and thus is declared a peaceful Christmas time to all,
by advising devotion and to behave otherwise quietly and peacefully,
because he who breaks this peace and violates 
the peace of Christmas
by any illegal or improper behaviour 
shall under aggravating circumstances
be guilty and punished 
according to what the law and statutes prescribe
for each and every offence separately.
Finally, a joyous Christmas feast is wished to all inhabitants of the city."

To all the world — joulurauha. And Hyvää Joulua! (Happy Christmas!)


Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Christmas sauna — a joulusauna

Mauri, my Finnish correspondent when I was writing Some Like it Hot: The Sauna, Its Lore and Stories*, told me one of his family traditions was a Christmas sauna, a joulusauna. It was a custom I had never heard of. They chose the day before Christmas Eve, but noted that others might go to sauna the morning of Christmas Eve or even Christmas Day itself.

Christmas came to Finland only about 700 years ago — the tradition of a sauna at midwinter has been around for longer than Christianity has. Like other countries, when Christmas arrived, it added existing midwinter customs which had existed for thousands of years before. Throughout much of Scandinavia, the old beliefs held that on the night of midwinter, the dead returned to the earth, and were appeased with a sauna. Many still keep the sauna warm and throw another ladle of water on the rocks to make it comfortable for when their ancestors, elves or gnomes visit.

A different reason saunas were taken Christmas Eve Day might date to the years when most Finns lived in the country and did heavy farm or logging work. At Christmas, they could take time to be with families, a celebration in itself to relax and eat when time with loved ones was the biggest gift of all.

On a normal day in Finland, Mauri said, one would go to the sauna during the evening. However, on the 24th of December, as the myth goes, the spirits of the dead return after sunset for their sauna. So, to make room for them, Finns take their joulusaunas early in the day, or the day before, like his family.

In fact, millions of saunas are heated in Finland on Christmas Eve, and up to 70% of the population of Finland will enjoy a joulusauna on Christmas Eve. Public saunas even have special Christmas Eve and Christmas Day hours for patrons who don’t have their own saunas.

What a great way to get ready for the celebrations — to get totally clean and to sweat out all the obligations and lists that start taking precedence. And as many rural women in northern climates gave birth in saunas, being the only place with water and heat, its the perfect time to contemplate our Saviors birth, in its own humble location.

My next post will describe another unique Finnish tradition — Christmas peace.

* Buy a copy of Some Like It Hot: The Sauna, Its Lore and Stories from the publisher, North Star Press of St. Cloud, Minnesota, or from local booksellers.For a personally inscribed copy, send $20 (which includes tax and shipping costs) to: Nikki Rajala, P.O. Box 372, Rockville, Minnesota 56369.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Celebrating Joulu (Yule) in Finland

Like most countries, the Finns enjoy special traditions at Christmastime, called Joulu. Typically, they celebrate on Christmas Eve, with festive meals, gifts from Santa and worship.  

On Christmas Eve, families might visit cemeteries to place candles on the gravestones and then attend worship services. Imagine the beauty of flickering candlelight illuminating the dark (the sun sets around 3:15 p.m.).

The Finnish Santa Claus is called joulupukki. He skips the roof-and-chimney routine — instead he knocks on the front door to deliver Christmas gifts, which then are put under the tree.

Joulupöytä is Christmas dinner, (translated “Yule” table). A traditional meal might feature ham with mustard, various presentations of fish — from gravlax (a smoked salmon) to fish roe, lutefisk and herring (often pickled), casseroles of root vegetables (like rutabagas or carrots) and mixed beetroot salad. The traditional beverage is mulled wine, glögi

Desserts include mixed fruit soup, rice pudding (whoever gets the hidden almond opens their gifts first), the thin, very brittle ginger cookies called piparkakut, and prune jam pastries, the joulutorttu

But before the meal, the worship service and the gift-giving, they enjoy one more tradition — the Christmas sauna. Thats the subject of my next post.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

When in Finland — Giuseppi actually tries a sauna

Giuseppi was impressed with the idea of sauna. Elsewhere in his lengthy account, he describes partaking.  After all When in Rome, ... which he translates to Finland. 
“The heat of the vapour rose to 50 degrees of Celsius; at first I felt a violent oppression, and had it augmented I believe, naked as I was, I should have made my escape from the bath, but forcing myself to persevere, I gradually became accustomed to it, and after some time was able to support a heat of 65 degrees.”
Three cheers for Giuseppi! He made it past the first heat wave, all the way up to 65 degrees (though sauna fans aiming for the 90s and 100s might not be impressed). He never reveals, however, whether he liked it, or he noticed its health benefit. 

Read more fun sauna lore: 
To buy a personally signed copy of Some Like It Hot: The Sauna, Its Lore and Stories from me, send $20 (which includes tax and shipping costs) to: 
Nikki Rajala, 
P.O. Box 372,
 Rockville, Minnesota 56369.  

You can also purchase one from the publisher, North Star Press of St. Cloud, Minnesota,by clicking on the link, or from local booksellers.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Giuseppi Acerbi, part 2

(Giuseppi liked to throw open the door and surprise the sauna bathers, but could hardly manage to
stick around.)
“My astonishment was so great that I could scarcely believe my senses, when I found that those people remain together, and amuse themselves for the space of half an hour, and sometimes a whole hour, in the same chamber, heated to the 70th or 75th degree of Celsius. The thermometer, in contact with those vapours, became sometimes so hot, that I could scarcely hold it in my hands.”
(Note to self: bring gloves to hold onto the thermometer!)
“The Finlanders, all the while they are in this hot bath, continue to rub themselves, and lash every part of their bodies with switches formed of twigs of the birch-tree. In ten minutes they become as red as raw flesh, and have altogether a very frightful appearance.”
(Check the birch switches in his etching they look wicked! And notice that one woman tends the fire and water buckets, fully dressed.) 
“In the winter season they frequently go out of the bath, naked as they are, to roll themselves in the snow, when the cold is at twenty and even thirty degrees below zero. They will sometimes come out, still naked, and converse together, or with anyone near them, in the open air.
“If travelers happen to pass by while the peasants of any hamlet, or little village, are in the bath, and their assistance is needed, they will leave the bath, and assist in yoking, or unyoking, and fetching provender for the houses, or in any thing else without any sort of covering whatever, while the passenger sits shivering with cold, though wrapped up in a good sound wolfs skin. There is nothing more wonderful than the extremities which man is capable of enduring through the power of habit.
“The Finnish peasants pass thus instantaneously from an atmosphere of 70 degrees of heat to one of 30 degrees of cold, a transition of a hundred degrees, which is the same thing as going out of boiling into freezing water! and what is more astonishing, without the least inconvenience; while other people are very sensibly affected by a variation of but five degrees, and in danger of being afflicted with rheumatism by the most trifling wind that blows.
“Those peasants assure you, that without the hot vapour baths they could not sustain as they do, during the whole day, their various labours. By the bath, they tell you, their strength is recruited as much as by rest and sleep. The heat of the vapour mollifies to such a degree their skin, that men easily shave themselves with wretched razors, and without soap.
“Had Shakespeare known of a people who could thus have pleasure in such quick transition from excessive heat to the severest cold, his knowledge might have been increased, but his creative fancy could not have been assisted.”
Oh! who can hold a fire in his hand,
By thinking of the frosty Caucasus?
Or wallow naked in December snow,
By thinking on fantastic summers heat?”

Sunday, November 30, 2014

An early Italian traveler discovers the sauna

In the late 1790s, a 25-year-old Italian man, Giuseppi Acerbi, was at a loss as to what to do. Interested in natural history and exploration (and composing music), he decided to see the world — and traveled to northern climates. (Perhaps its like having a gap year following high school
graduation before entering college.) 

When he returned home, he published a two-volume account of his adventures, Traveler through Sweden, Finland and Lapland to the North Cape in the years 1798 and 1799.Travelogues were as popular then as now.

In Chapter XXII, he gets to the topic Im most interested in — sauna.
“… The use of Vapour-Baths among the People at large, and especially among the Peasantry — Some Particulars of this Manner of bathing — The extraordinary Transitions from Heat to Cold which the Finlanders can endure.”
“Another particular that appeared very singular among the customs of the Finns, was their baths, and manner of bathing. Almost all the Finnish peasants have a small house built on purpose for a bath: it consists of only one small chamber, in the innermost part of which are placed a number of stones, which are heated by fire till they become red.
“On these stones, thus heated, water is thrown, until the company within be involved in a thick cloud of vapour. In this innermost part, the chamber is formed into two stories for the accommodation of a greater number of persons within that small compass; and it being the nature of heat and vapour to ascend, the second story is, of course the hottest.
“Men and women use the bath promiscuously, without any concealment of dress, or being in the least influenced by any emotions of attachment. If, however, a stranger open the door, and come on the bathers by surprise, (Hes speaking of himself here.) the women are not a little startled at his appearance; for, besides his person, he introduces along with him, by opening the door, a great quantity of light, which discovers at once to view their situation, as well as forms.
“Without such an accident they remain, if not in total darkness, yet in great obscurity, as there is no other window besides a small hole, nor any light but what enters in from some chink in the roof of the house, or the crevices between the pieces of wood of which it is constructed.”
(Examine Giuseppis etching for the size of the sauna, the fire chamber, the benches, the switches...  Even if he couldnt handle the heat, he found ways to enjoy the process.)
“I often amused myself with surprising the bathers in this manner, and I once or twice tried to go in and join the assembly; but the heat was so excessive that I could not breathe, and in the space of a minute at most, I verily believe, must have been suffocated. I sometimes stepped in for a moment, just to leave my thermometer in some proper place, and immediately went out again, where I would remain for a quarter of an hour, or ten minutes, and then enter again, and fetch the instrument to ascertain the degree of heat.” 
 There’s more, lots more — Volume I, with this story, has 396 pages, plus a dedication and preface. My next post completes his discussion.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Hockey and the sauna??

Hockey and sauna are not an automatic pairing in my mind — or weren’t until I read a story in the sports section of a recent St. Cloud Times. St. Cloud State University’s team roster now includes four Finnish hockey players: Rasmus Reijola, Kalle Kossila, Niklas Nevalainen and Mika Ivonen. What music to read their names!

The story notes that a sauna was newly constructed for the Finnish players near the team’s shower area. Wow! Was that a deal-breaker — no sauna, no play? Wonder how it compares to saunas they’re familiar with, how often they enjoy a steam ... 

A photo on an inside page shows them relaxing in the sauna, in their shorts and jerseys and holding hockey sticks — unusual sauna attire. No wonder they’re grinning!

The other players are beginning to learn about sauna customs — which doesn’t indicate that any have been brave enough to give it a try. According to the story, whose music is played in the locker room is a more important debate.

Inquiring minds need to know, so I checked their game schedule — they’re on ice through mid-April. Maybe I won't get a chance to speak with them.

So I wish them many goals and assists, and even more steams.

Read the entire story in the St. Cloud Times, Oct. 9, 2014: “Four Finns heat up the Huskies roster as opener looms”


Friday, October 24, 2014

The dark side of sauna

I love looking at old photos people post on Facebook—they remind me of warm and funny memories from my own experience. A different warm memory occurred in our sauna last week—the electric light burned out. I’ve gotten so used to simply using the on-off switch that I forgot what a ‘no-light’ sauna was like. Fortunately it didn’t happen while we were inside.

The fix was more complicated and took much longer than expected, so for a couple of weeks we took saunas by candlelight (metal flashlights get hot).

It was a reminder of my own ‘olden days.’ The sauna on the beach had no windows, so we’d bring a lantern. Even so, it was very dark inside the sauna chamber. I learned to move slower, let my eyes adjust, steer clear of the stove and climb quickly to the upper bench. The soap or buckets were placed in the same places—easy to find in the inky dark.

In our no-light sauna, sauna preparations took much longer—bucket and dipper here, towels and drinking water there, where we could find them by feel. Remember to open the air vent. How long would our votive candles last? Where should they be placed? When I dropped something, it stayed there until the next day. Even walking to our patio for cool-down was trickier, finding my slip-ons against the dark floor, the door handle not where my hand reached.

After much struggle, Bill, my hero, got the old bulb removed and replaced the socket. Last night—I flipped the switch and voila, there was light! Remembering saunas in the dark was useful, but thank you electricity! 


Sunday, September 21, 2014

And the even saunatonttu

The last page of Sheryl Peterson's book “The Best Part of a Sauna”  included great info about the sauna—the proper pronunciation, how Finnish immigrants used the sauna, different kinds, words like löyly, the cloud of steam produced by tossing water on the rocks, and vihta, the soft branches for swishing one's back, and directions on how-to. 
She even mentioned the saunatonttu, a little elf, who warns people when a fire was getting too hot. 
All in about 600 words. Neat skill. 
Sheryl is the author of 22 children's books—an impressive accomplishment! Check them out at


Sunday, September 14, 2014

“The Best Part of a Sauna”

Sheryl Peterson knows what the best part is. She's written a delightful children's book, “The Best Part of a Sauna,” which won the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award. 

Her story kept me guessing (though I was sure I knew the best part for me). But — what would kids like best — building the fire? Making water sizzle on the rocks? Jumping in the lake?

And what would their grandparents like best (because in this book a child goes to sauna at their cabin) How did they introduce sauna to this young visitor? What were their customs?

It's so smoothly told it makes me want to write like that.

The book“The Best Part of a Sauna” was illustrated by Kelly Dupre, who asked Sheryl to photograph the sunset very often so she could see how to incorporate the waning hours. Other nifty touches — pay attention to how the boy's hat changes and how many of her paintings have ravens.

“The Best Part of a Sauna” (hardcover is $17.95, softcover is $9.95, plus taxes and postage) was published by Raven Words in Ely, Minnesota. To order one, click the link or call 218-365-3375.


Sunday, August 31, 2014

What’s the best thing about saunas?

Ahhh the sound of water hissing on the rocks. The smell of pine, cedar, birch (even after the new saunasmell is gone. I love the abrupt change of temperatures when I can jump in a lake super-hot to chilly which is hard to explain to non-enthusiasts.

A different plus are the things I appreciate about sauna the relaxation which comes afterwards which brings release from everyday irritations and solutions to problems. Sleeping well after the sauna, soft skin ... that list could go on.

And then there’s the evening sauna. Sweet!

Ill bet its different love for every one — grandpas, adults, teens, little kids. What say you?


Buy a copy of Some Like It Hot: The Sauna, Its Lore and Stories from the publisher, North Star Press of St. Cloud, Minnesota, or from local booksellers.

For a personally inscribed copy, send $20 (which includes tax and shipping costs) to: Nikki Rajala, P.O. Box 372, Rockville, Minnesota 56369.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sauna hats??

While looking at a picture of sauna accessories, I noticed sauna hats. Hats? I was mystified. This was quite out of my experience.

When I ventured further onto the Internet, I found more hats. One website for a public sauna business encouraged people to bring their own the sillier, the better.

Sure enough, photos show happy people wearing woolen caps. Hats apparently protect a person’s head and allow them to enjoy hotter temperatures and/or longer saunas.

Does it work? Anyone who’s convinced? Let me know.

Side note: My hairdresser said that heat is especially hard on hair dyes — worse than chlorine pools. Her usual suggestion is that  those whove treated themselves to expensive hair coloring should limit time under a blow dryer or in the sun. I bet that would include the sauna as well. When I’m due for a recoloring, maybe I should  try a hat.


Buy a copy of Some Like It Hot: The Sauna, Its Lore and Stories from the publisher, North Star Press of St. Cloud, Minnesota, or from local booksellers.  

For a personally inscribed copy, send $20 (which includes tax and shipping costs) to: Nikki Rajala, P.O. Box 372, Rockville, Minnesota 56369.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

I did it

Ive been agonizing about the switch for a long time. As you may have noted.

For tradition’s sake, I made my own whisks and had to search for birch, but ash and oak were in the yard. The ash twigs were the whippiest, the oak the sturdiest. They took about 10 minutes, but that’s because I’m a newbie. My dad could have done it blindfolded, probably. I’d practiced making a birch whisk a week earlier — and was it ever crispy! (But now I know how to resuscitate it.)

Others tried my leafy whisks as I needed to leave before the leaves were used (sorry about the bad pun!).

Ash received 0 votes — it wasn’t durable and disintegrated after a couple of uses. Birch won the
“wonderful scent” award and tied with oak for its usability and durability. Oak earned the “astringent” prize. 

And now you know. 


Sunday, August 3, 2014

Changing the pace

Two paths diverged in a northern woods — one lined with pines and the other with birches. For the last few months, I’ve taken the one with pines and cedars as I’ve been writing about saunas. 

 Now it’s time to walk the other one — a portage trail voyageurs might have taken carrying their birch bark canoes

A novel about a French-Canadian teen becomes a voyageur and spends a winter in the fur trade. The working title for manuscript has been “Good for Nothing,” but that will change soon. The novel, a long-time project that my mom and I have worked on, will be published in mid-September. On that web site — you can find Chapter 1, a blog (A Voyageur’s Life) and a whole lot more. Visit me, bookmark it, subscribe to the blog, “like it on Facebook, share it with others ... 

So for the next while, I plan only to post weekly on SaunaWise (and perhaps even less) as I juggle the new aspects of author events. Yes, I’ll miss this, but I’ll be back.


Buy a copy of Some Like It Hot: The Sauna, Its Lore and Stories from the publisher, North Star Press of St. Cloud, Minnesota, Inc., or from local booksellers. 

You will soon be able to purchase a copy of “Good for Nothing” from North Star Press, but not for a while yet.

For a signed copy of either book, send $20 (which includes tax and shipping costs) to: Nikki Rajala, P.O. Box 372, Rockville, Minnesota 56369.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Four whisk-er bits

At a recent family reunion, I learned from Finnish relatives (maybe third cousins) a technique in freezing vihtas. Their trick is to slide an absorbent paper, like a coffee filter, between layers of branches. Then place the vihta in a ziplock plastic bag and squeeze all the air out and flatten the bag. Voilait's ready for the freezer, where they last a long time!

He also taught me how to pronounce vihta, but I’m not very good at it.

Another third cousin told me that vihtas can be purchased at many shops in Finland you dont have to go find the right trees at the right time. He also said that, harvested in spring when the leaves are strongly attached to the branch, the vihta will last a long time.

That brings me to the third third-cousin story. She told me about taking saunas with her grandmother, and hitting each other with vihtas. Which is a lot for some kids to process, but she did it handily. And late in life, her grandmother counted out a row of vihtas dried and ready for use. That will be enough to last me, she said.

The fourth third cousin also remembered taking saunas with her grandma (not the same one), who would kiss her eyes when soap got in them. Awww. 

With all these third cousins from Finland, Canada, California and Georgia and my usual first and second cousins telling stories, you KNOW it was a wonderful reunion!


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Finn Fest extra

Jack Rajala, my first cousin, will be one of Saturday’s featured speakers at FinnFest. His talk is titled "The Tale of Two Forests." 

Jack recalled that many years ago our grandfather, Ivar Rajala, visited Finland, accompanied by Jack’s parents and another aunt and uncle. Among the sights they took in were the managed forests in Finland. Grandpa Ivar was impressed with how attractive and robustly healthy they appeared. When he looked at Minnesota forests, which were a jumble of weedy undergrowth and fallen dead trees, he said, "What a mess!"

So go listen to Jack’s presentation and others, shop, enjoy music, crafts-- So much to do, so little time.

Finnfest is August 7-10 in Minneapolis.
Saturday and Sunday are Family Days. Children ages 16 and under get in free.  Adult tickets are $35 for one day, $60 for any two days, $80 for all four days.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Technology improves the whisk-er

What could be better than a nice soft birch switch?

About 15 years ago, I talked to Tom, then a young student at Vermillion Community College in Ely, Minnesota, discovered the Ely Steam Bath*, a public sauna with its own long heritage. Hed thought the experience might be similar to “sannas” he’d taken in motels. Boy was he surprised to find instead a rich social tradition with older Finns, Scandanavians and Yugoslavians.

An old-timer who’d been a logger taught him about using a vihta/vasta, explaining that it increased circulation. Others there no longer used whisks, though they had at one time. The logger had used alder leaves, and even showed Tom how to make one. But, the logger said, they only last a month or so.

Then he showed off his upgraded whisk — which Tom described as “a plastic pompom thing on a stick.”

Sometime later, I purchased one of my own, intending to try it out. It’s been decorating the sauna for quite a few years, but now I’ll change its status to “working.”

I’ll compare my pompom to the leafy whisk I made out of ash branches and report back — inquiring minds need to know.


* For the rest of the story on the Ely Steam Bath, see chapter 27 of Some Like It Hot: The Sauna, Its Lore and Stories. It’s been in (almost) business continuously since 1915, though it changed hands when the original family owner died a few years back. They don’t have a website but can be found on Facebook.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

How to whisk?

What exactly is the procedure?

I have read that its not supposed to hurt, but it should make your skin tingle. Splash, whisk, flick as lightly or heartily as feels right.

Each bather gets their own vihta/vasta. This whisk can assist in washing up add a bit of soap to warm water in a basin, whip it up to a foam, whisk the soapy water on your legs, arms, torso and back.

A good one will last several saunas, depending on how vigorously or how often it is used.

Im stalling...