Fire and Ice

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For descendants of Maine’s 19th-century Finnish immigrants, the sauna ritual has lost none of its sanctity.

By Ike Johnson
Photographed by Molly Haley
From our March 2017 issue.
Laukka shaves in the sauna, a Finnish tradition
Laukka shaves in the sauna, a Finnish tradition

A Finn, a Swede, an Italian, and a circus freak walked into a sauna. This is not a joke. It was a dreary winter day on Crawford Pond in Knox County. Idle cottages ringed the lake. A lone eagle was devouring a frozen pickerel, and a frozen ice fisherman was ensuring he did not want for fish. Both managed to ignore the small flock of rosy-bummed sauna loons as they migrated single file to a 4-by-5-foot hole in the ice, where they took turns dipping in the bracingly cold water. They then waddled back to the sauna and started over. (Disclaimer: Okay, my son is not a circus freak, although he has enough tattoos to pass.)

So there we were, all together in the altogether, alternating between a rustic room hot enough to bake bread and a pool of ice water. It’s a tribute to the midcoast’s ingrained sauna tradition that the whole spectacle drew attention neither from fisherman nor fowl. (Another disclaimer: When our female companions crossed the ice, the fisherman did take note.)

The sauna ritual almost surely hitchhiked here with the Finns who immigrated to Maine in the 19th century. In an era when even the most affluent lacked running water, saunas were a testament to the Nordic affinity for cleanliness. As a second-generation Finnish friend explained, “When Finns started a farm, they first built a sauna, then an outhouse, then the home.” And while their customs clashed with New England’s prudish mores about nudity (mixed-gender nudity in particular), the sauna took root nonetheless. Erja Lipponen, of Camden, remembers an embarrassing moment in a Connecticut YMCA sauna when she was a child émigré. Taking one look at Lipponen and her sisters, a distraught mother yanked her daughter out of the sauna in a fuss. “Apparently in the New World, they wear swimsuits when they bathe,” Lipponen, now in her early 50s, jokes. “My sisters and I were flummoxed but kept on doing what we were doing.”

Outside the sauna, Erja Lipponen, of Camden, takes a dip through a hole in the ice.
Outside the sauna, Erja Lipponen, of Camden, takes a dip through a hole in the ice.

Along the road where I live on Crawford Pond, barely 4 miles long, there are at least eight saunas in regular use. How many Maine households practice sauna? There’s no way to know for sure, but drive down Finntown Road in Waldoboro on December 24 and you might suspect quite a few, as descendants of the state’s earliest Finn settlers still faithfully observe the ritual of a sauna before the Christmas Eve service.

 Sauna Glossary

Löyly Steam vapor, also spirit or essence.
Vihta A birch flail used to invigorate the skin.
Sulkea pirun luuku Shut the friggin’ door, you’re letting the heat out.
Weenie Roast Discussion ladies hold within sauna.
Hot Cross Buns Marks left on the derrière by an overheated sauna bench.
Kiuas Sauna stoves. Before their invention, the Finns built a fire on a stone platform.

If you believe all the online articles touting the health benefits of “The Finnish Cure,” sauna alleviates more ailments than a 55-gallon drum of snake oil, including depression, rheumatoid arthritis, anorexia nervosa, and fibromyalgia. The Journal of American Medicine published a 20-year study (conducted in — where else? — Finland) that correlates frequent sauna use with lowered cardiovascular mortality. Aches and some skin disorders respond favorably to the heat. In Scandinavian countries, the Baltic states, and Thailand, sauna is used to help new mothers recover from the rigors of childbirth. My Crawford Pond companions, the Finn and the Swede, each an octogenarian plus change, know people who were born in saunas, a common practice because of the way saunas were scrupulously cleaned. “Not only was the sauna the default place for birthing,” says Leo Laukka (the Finn), “but also for preparing the dead for burial. You left by the same door you entered.”

Laukka was a boy when his family came to New York, forsaking the privacy of their home sauna for a community sauna at one of Harlem’s Finnish Socialist Halls. “More business deals were sealed in saunas than ever were boardrooms,” he says. A builder, Laukka estimates that he’s put up dozens of saunas here in Maine. Keeping with Finnish tradition, it was the first structure he built on his own lakefront property, hauling in the building materials before there was even a road. It is, he says, his refuge from worries.

My son Ivan was introduced to saunas in utero and later sat on the floor in a bowl while his mother trickled cool water over his young head. “She called it the ‘paradise shower,’” he says. “I can’t remember a time before sauna.”

A third-generation Finn, Diane Laing grew up on a blueberry farm in Rockport. “We had no running water, hot or cold,” she recalls. “Twice a week we fired up the sauna. It was our only way to get clean.” The adults used it to socialize. They would take turns hosting weekly sauna nights. Around the summer equinox, the kids would gather birch switches into bundles called vihtas, to stimulate circulation through gentle whipping while sweating away worries and toxins. It was an ironclad tradition to take a sauna before Christmas Eve service. She describes the atmosphere as relaxed reverence. “It was a sacred space.”

The Finnish axiom “saunassa ollaan kuin kirkossa” translates as “one behaves in sauna as one behaves in church.” Assuming that a post-sauna beer equates to communion, this holds true today. There’s even a tradition of firing up the sauna periodically solely for the benefit of the elf-spirit Saunatonttu, which is not unlike a sacrificial offering. But it’s the ritual cleansing that Finns emphasize. “It’s good,” Erja Lipponen muses, “to get really dirty doing something worthwhile, then get really clean in the sauna.”

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