Today is the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, the astronomical beginning of winter when the length of day roughly equals the length of night. Since the summer solstice in June, daylight has gradually shortened; beginning today, it will gradually increase until next June when day and night will be equal. Even though this is the shortest day of the year, sun worshippers actually welcome it because each day from now till the summer solstice daylight will increase. My neighbor, a sufferer of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), celebrates today because for the next six months things will be going his way. Since I’m one of about 5% of the population who suffers the opposite—reverse seasonal affective disorder (RSAD)—I take pleasure in today’s darkness but now face the prospect of lengthening daylight that by April (for me the cruelest month) will send my emotions downward and make me a grumpy companion. Family and friends who are cheering on newly sprouting gardens in the spring have learned to stay clear of me and my brooding as daylight lengthens.
But in today’s darkness I’m a happy camper because I’m a winter person, a lover of snow and all the pleasures it makes possible: skiing, hiking, and especially snowshoeing. Ten years ago a new winter pleasure entered my life: sauna.
My wife and I had the wonderful opportunity to teach at the Helsinki School of Economics, one year at its campus in Mikkeli, a small town in Finland’s lake district, and another at its main campus in Helsinki. In both places we had a sauna in our apartment, and we fell in love with the sauna tradition. We taught in the morning, spent the afternoon swimming, walking, or biking, and then headed into our sauna for a long and relaxing time that soothed the mental rigors of teaching and the physical ones of exercise. Sauna was followed by a cool shower rather than the dip in a lake that true Finns take.
When we added a porch to our house in Maine a few years after our adventures in Finland we seized the chance to install a sauna at the end of the porch, and it became a critical part of our winter routine. After an afternoon of snowshoeing we start the electric unit (traditionalists prefer a wood-fired one, but that takes too long, and both our Finnish saunas were electric), strip off our clothes, and enter the warm and steamy space for a relaxing 40 minutes or so. Steam is important. As a going-away present our students in Finland had presented us with an authentic sauna dipper, and we use it liberally to create the steamy environment that is critical to a successful sauna experience.
I’m so besotted with sauna that in Breaking Ground, the second of my Julie Williamson mysteries, I set a crucial scene in a sauna. It was a new experience for Julie and included a typical Finnish tradition that we don’t observe in our practice: sausages and shots of aquavik, a strong spirit best taken in small measures. The scene provides an important detail that helps her unravel the mystery. I won’t reveal more here but of course encourage readers to find out.
If you haven’t had a real sauna, I’m not going to try to describe its effects except to say that the feeling you get from a sauna followed by a cool shower is both physically and mentally soothing. Body and mind converge. I was interested to read a long story in a recent New York Times about the tremendous growth in sales of home saunas because of the pandemic. The story cited various studies that sauna use improves the body’s immune response, lowers blood pressure, and generally promotes better health. Except for high rates of alcoholism related to the long nights of winter, Finns are on the whole healthier than Americans, though I suspect some of that is due to their outdoor exercise—to say nothing of their free health care system. In the event, I don’t need statistics about blood pressure to make me a devoted sauna user. I simply know it’s good for me.
The one question friends always ask about our sauna experience is whether you have to do it in the nude. The answer is a resounding Yes. I can’t imagine wearing anything in sauna. We tried bathing suits once when friends wanted to join us. But that just didn’t feel right, and we’re too American to think of sitting naked with friends, a silly attitude that Finns aren’t burdened by.
So as we arrive today at the shortest day of the year, my wife and I look hopefully to forecasts that may finally bring real snow to our home in the mountains and make possible long snowshoe treks that will culminate in a sauna. But even though we’re currently limited to road walks, we consider them adequate to justify turning on the electric heater, filling the bucket with water to which we’ve added a measure of birch tincture, shedding our clothes, and entering the other world of the sauna. If you haven’t, give sauna a try. Whether you like or hate winter, sauna may convince you that winter has its rewards. Happy solstice!