ON MY FIRST JUHANNUS NINE YEARS AGO, I participated in Finland’s summer exodus, riding in the car for five hours with my wife’s (then girlfriend’s) Finnish family, traveling from Helsinki to Central Finland. To pass the time, my in-laws sang several Finnish national songs. Inspired by the fierce patriotism of my wife’s family (especially her bass-voiced father), I eventually volunteered to sing a solo-version of America’s national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I sang loud and proud until I realized that I had forgotten many of the lyrics. My face turned red as a Finnish strawberry.
At my in-laws’ summer cottage, the conditions were perfect for Juhannus. And if you’re a Finn, you know exactly what I mean.
The vibrant dusk over the calm lake. The warm breeze rustling the leaves of the birch trees. The smell of grilled sausages and smoke.
On this evening, I would enjoy my first authentic sauna in Finland. (Tonight I hoped to forget about the electric one I often used at my American college where throwing water on the rocks was illegal.)
By the time I had reached the changing room, my father-in-law and his middle-aged Finnish friend were already baking inside. As I undressed, I realized that I faced a crucial decision.
Should I wear swim shorts or go butt-naked?
I had heard that Finns go nude to the sauna, but the Americans I knew would never feel comfortable wearing their birthday suits around their in-laws, let alone their own family.
In the United States, you can go to your grave without seeing anyone in your own family naked. And millions of Americans are more than happy to keep it this way.
But it was Midsummer, and I wasn’t in America anymore. I was in Central Finland, thousands of kilometers from home (and hundreds of kilometers from civilization, for that matter). And since going au natural to sauna was a Finnish habit, I wouldn’t want my Finnish father-in-law and his friend to feel uncomfortable with me being the only man wearing a bathing suit.
I mustered all of my American courage and threw my swim shorts to the corner of the dressing room. I pushed open the door of the sauna and after taking one step inside, I was hit in the face with an unexpected realization.
I was the only naked man in that sauna.
As I sat down on the lowest bench and crossed my legs, the embarrassment of forgetting the lyrics to America’s national anthem seemed like no big deal.
Why did these Finns have their swim trunks on, I wondered. Had I missed out on a hidden cultural rule? After five minutes had passed, I left the sauna scratching my head.
Later that evening, I discovered through my wife that her father had agreed with his friend to wear their shorts in the sauna in an effort to be culturally sensitive to me, the modest American.
These two Finns and I were like polite strangers on the street who had tried too hard to avoid walking into each other — swerving one way, then the other way and then back again — but ultimately, achieved the one thing they sought to avoid by crashing into each other clumsily.
After surviving the awkwardness of my first Midsummer, I have learned to treasure the uniqueness of this Finnish holiday. Now I know that Juhannus is so much more than a long car-ride and another excuse by Finns to hop into the sauna.
Juhannus is when vegetarians like myself crave grilled sausages (or even — gasp! — devour one or two of them).
Juhannus is when even New Yorkers would be impressed by the amount of traffic in Finland.
Juhannus is when millions of Finns act like American college kids, wearing pajamas all day, staying up all night and consuming way too much alcohol.
Juhannus is when the cottage-less Finns becomes an ethnic minority that the majority of Finland pities.
Juhannus is when even the unemployed of Finland take a vacation from being unemployed.
Juhannus is the deadline for every self-respecting Finn to have taken her first swim of the year.
Juhannus is when Finnish mosquitoes will suck your blood dry but will never steal your Midsummer joy.
Juhannus is when you promise you will never move away from Finland (although by November, you will seriously rethink this vow).
Last week, I asked my father-in-law to share his best memories of Midsummer. (I was secretly testing him to see if he had forgotten about my first Juhannus sauna.)
As he reflected on this Finnish holiday, he kept referring to it as Christmas by mistake, so at one point I interrupted him and joked, “Perhaps Juhannus is the Christmas of summer?”
With a boyish laugh and a twinkle in his eye, he said, “Maybe even better than Christmas.”