“Saunatonttu” and how to create an authentic Finnish Christmas sauna experience
Sauna has always played an essential role in the Finnish Christmas Eve’s celebration. In fact, Finns have been sauna bathing long before Christmas was celebrated in the country. A morning or early afternoon sauna session remains as a central part in the Christmas activities on the 24th of December. Many of the old sauna traditions are still respected and followed in families across the country. One of the most loved characters in the Christmas sauna is the Sauna Elf- “Saunatonttu”.
Finns and The Christmas Sauna
According to the Finnish National Statistics Centre, sauna bathing is the third most valued aspect of Christmas in Finland. The gold and silver medals go to spending time with loved ones and the Christmas meal (Statistics Finland). Every year, saunas are heated up in households and public venues across the country and sauna provides a relaxing moment to connect with friends and family before getting ready for the evening’s festivities. It’s a tradition which traces back to the Finnish farm men’s culture and folklore in which the “Saunatonttu” – Sauna Elf – also plays an important role.
The Sauna Elf- “Saunatonttu”
Saunatonttu is a mythological creature that has evolved to the friendly, human-like elf as we nowadays know it from beliefs about spirits. These beliefs root back thousands of years making Saunatonttu an integral part of the national folklore and sauna traditions. Nowadays, many saunas in Finland have their own saunatonttu caricatures guarding the space and ensuring a peaceful bathing environment. Sauna is considered as a holy place in the Finnish history. It was believed that in each household the person who first made the fire to prepare a sauna would eventually become the spirit of that sauna.
In the olden days each spirit was believed to have their own task within a property. The sauna spirit was in charge of taking care of the sauna, where the spirit also lived. When the sauna stove started making crackling noises, it was believed to be the sauna spirit. Nowadays, Finns like to say that any noises in a sauna are coming from the elf who is knocking his little ladle against the heater.
“Each household’s own Saunatonttu is responsible for maintaining order and ensuring that the bathers behave well in the sauna, specifically on Christmas Eve. This is why the saunatonttu should always be respected and treated with care,” says archival researcher and Senior Archivist at the Finnish Literature Society (SKS), Juha Nirkko.
According to Nirkko, who has researched the traditions and beliefs about Christmas and the sauna etiquette, there are a few essential aspects to a traditional Christmas Eve’s sauna. These are also guidelines to follow in order to keep the saunatonttu happy:
1. You must always speak quietly in the Christmas sauna
2. You should go to the sauna earlier in the day on Christmas Eve
Sauna is a part of the process of getting cleaned up and ready for the Christmas eve and day. This is also to ensure that the saunatonttu has enough time to bathe after the owners and guests leave to get ready for the evening.
3. Beer is for good luck
People used to believe that throwing beer on the sauna stones would bring a good harvest for the upcoming year. Many sauna manufacturers and Nirkko himself would not recommend maintaining this tradition, as throwing beer on the stones can damage
the stove. If you really want to give it a try, mix just a little bit of beer with the loyly water.
4. Rolling in the snow and making snow angels in between the steams -loylys- is good for your soul
This is still recommended and many people take cold plunges as a part of their Christmas sauna routine. Some of the sauna health benefits associated with a cold-water dip include improving the circulation, energy levels, memory and relieving chronic pain.
5. The saunatonttu will also want to bathe, so give him enough time towards the evening to enjoy the sauna
It was also considered polite to leave enough of loyly water in the bucket, beer and some food for the saunatonttu before leaving the sauna.
Nirkko himself follows the rule of going to the sauna earlier in the day on Christmas Eve. “I also like to remind family members not to raise their voices. Just so we don’t upset the saunatonttu”, Nirkko adds. The tradition continues and approximately 80 percent of Finns heat up the sauna on Christmas Eve (Statistics Finland).
How to create an authentic Finnish Christmas Sauna Experience
The festive Christmas sauna atmosphere is created with different scents, candles, lanterns and decorations.
Sauna Scents and Oils
Different sauna scents and oils are an easy and safe way to bring about a Christmassy feel in the sauna. Despite the fact that some people still like to do it “the old way” and throw beer on the stoves, sauna scents and oils are a heater friendlier way to add to the festive feel.
Candles and lanterns are also essential in the Christmas sauna. Outdoor lanterns are often placed outside, next to sauna cabins. With indoor saunas, candles or tealights can be placed to the bathroom area to add to the peaceful Christmas atmosphere.
A clean sauna is important on Christmas. The sauna area should be properly washed before going in on Christmas Eve. Fresh sauna linen are a finishing touch.
Whisks- “vihtas”- are an important part of the traditional sauna ritual. They are believed to improve blood circulation and are often used inside the sauna as decorations. The leaves have a pleasant, natural scent to them. Traditionally whisks are made from the birch tree but juniper, eucalyptus and oak have become popular as whisks too.
Sauna Elf Ornament
Each sauna should have its own saunatonttu, sauna elf. These little decorative creatures can be found in a lot of Finnish saunas. Finnmark Sauna has a variety of little Hukka design sauna elves, which are made of Finnish soapstone. The newest arrival is our Christmas sauna elf Jolle.
Most importantly, the sauna experience is best when shared with loved ones and taking your time. Christmas sauna is a part of the preparation for the big festivities later in the day. It is a moment to relax and spend time with friends and family. The bathing should be properly enjoyed, without rushing. Lastly, remember to hydrate and leave some treats for the Saunatonttu.
Statistics Finland (2019). Joulu tilastojen valossa. Available at: http://www.stat.fi/tup/tilastokirjasto/joulu-tilastojen-valossa-2019.
Statistics Finland (2017). Joulu tilastojen valossa. Available at: https://www.stat.fi/tup/tilastokirjasto/poimintoja-tilastovuodesta.html/joulu-tilastojen-valossa-2017.
Finnmark Sauna Blog. Sauna Health Benefits. Available at: https://finnmarksauna.com/blogs/sauna-health-benefits.