The purpose of Unesco’s lists is to increase awareness of intangible cultural heritage and make cultural traditions more visible. Intangible cultural heritage covers all forms of human activity. It can take the shape of oral tradition, performance art, social norms, rituals, celebrations, and information, expertise and practices connected to nature and the universe.
On 17 December 2020, Unesco decided to include the Finnish sauna bathing tradition to its list of intangible cultural heritage (https://ich.unesco.org/en/lists). Sauna bathing is the first Finnish tradition added to this list.
The successful project to have sauna bathing added to Unesco’s list began years ago when a group of Finnish sauna enthusiasts decided to propose sauna bathing for Unesco’s list of intangible cultural heritage. The project’s aim has been to ensure the continuation of the sauna tradition, boost the vitality of sauna culture and highlight the importance of Finnish sauna culture.
The practical work could begin when Finland signed Unesco’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013. However, the process was long, because a proposal could not be made until a National Inventory of Living Heritage had been created for Finland (https://wiki.aineetonkulttuuriperinto.fi). Communication with Unesco was carried out by the Finnish government, represented by the Ministry of Education and Culture. The Finnish Heritage Agency served as the official body, and the officials and the sauna communities’ representatives worked closely together. All in all, the application took 10 months to create, and it was submitted to Unesco in March 2019.
The Finnish Sauna Society took active part in having sauna bathing included in the Wiki-Inventory for Living Heritage and creating the Unesco application. The Society brought Finnish sauna-related operators together to promote the concepts of Finnish sauna and sauna culture. Being included in Unesco’s list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity is proof of the Finnish sauna culture’s vitality and the ability of the Finnish sauna community to achieve remarkable results together. More than 25 operators from around Finland took part in the Unesco project.
The sauna has always been a sacred place to Finns. In today’s hectic world, the sauna allows us to wash away the constant rush and daily struggles, both mentally and physically. Having been made part of Unesco’s list guarantees, in part, that this much loved place will remain the same in the otherwise changing world, and provides other nations an opportunity to learn about Finnish sauna culture. And let us not forget the part that saunas have played in helping Finland be the happiest country on earth.
Furthermore, Finnish sauna bathing culture extends outside the hot room: knowledge about the sauna has been orally passed on from generation to generation through poems, songs and games. A sauna is not just a building, but the foundation of a unique set of customs and a way of life for Finns, making it about so much more than simply having a wash. Through the ages, saunas have been used for childbirth, to have those deep discussions about life and to prepare loved ones for their final journey. Therefore, the Finnish Sauna Society wants to provide annual financial support to projects connected to sauna culture.
Finland signed Unesco’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013. The Convention promotes the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage and makes cultural traditions of individuals, groups and communities more visible. In Finland, sauna bathing culture is protected by local sauna communities. A network of operators called Sauna coalition has been formed to support this work, and all sauna communities from around the country are welcome.
Mirva Mattila, Ministry of Education and Culture, mirva.mattila(at)minedu.fi, tel. +358 2953 30269
Leena Marsio, expert at the Finnish Heritage Agency, leena.marsio(at)museovirasto.fi, tel. +358 2953 36017
Ritva Ohmeroluoma, Finnish Sauna Society & Sauna coalition, ritvaohmeroluoma(at)gmail.com. tel. +358 400 109 021
Media material about the sauna is available on the Finnish Heritage Agency’s website: https://www.museovirasto.fi/en/media/sauna.
Unesco’s lists of intangible cultural heritage: https://ich.unesco.org/en/lists.
The Finnish Heritage Agency’s pages on intangible cultural heritage: https://www.aineetonkulttuuriperinto.fi/en/.
The Wiki-Inventory for Living Heritage: https://wiki.aineetonkulttuuriperinto.fi/.
Sauna coalition’s FB group, open to all: https://www.facebook.com/groups/670303573615716.
The following operators took part in the project to add sauna bathing to Unesco’s list:
the Finnish Sauna Society; Alisniemi sauna, Nokia; Helsinginniemen Heitto ry; Hyvinkään Löylynlyömät; Imatran Talviuimarit ry; Jyvässeudun Perinnesaunojat ry; Jäämeren uimarit/Sallan Latu ja Polku ry; the International Sauna Association (ISA); the International Chimneyless Sauna Club; Lauhanvuoren perinne ry; Löylyveljet ry; Oulun Rantasaunaseura ry; Paimion Saunaryhmä; Pispalan saunayhdistys ry – Rajaportti Sauna; Polarin Saunakerho ry; Polyteknikkojen Saunaseura ry; Saimaan Saunaseura ry; Sauna Arla perinneyhdistys ry; Sauna from Finland ry; Saunahermannin Ystävät ry; Saunamestari Kilta ry; Saunaseura Kipakka ry; Saunaseura Kuuma ry; Saunaseura Löylynlyöjät ry; Saunaseura SaunaMafia ry; Saunaseura Vastaisku ry; Siirrettävien saunojen kokoontumisajot ry; Sompasaunaseura ry; Suomen Kupparit ja Saunaterapeutit ry; Suomen Saunakulttuuri ry; Suomen Saunaseura ry; Taivaannaula ry; Teuvan Saunaparaati Saunanturvajoukot; Yläkaupungin Saunaseura; Elämysten ja Ystävyyden kartano; Forum Hoitosauna; Herrankukkaro Oy; the City of Lappeenranta; Saunat.co; Saunat.fi; Saunaterapia.com; Saunologia.fi; Sisu savusauna; Tampereen talviuimarit; Kaupinoja sauna; Travellamo; and Villa Furuvik.