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Bathing in an ice hole in a middle of winter links to the old Orthodox traditions. Those holes are made on the surfaces of frozen lakes and ponds and rivers and called “jordans” in memory of the Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan. One of the most popular Russian customs is visiting a bathhouse that is called Banya in Russian. According to famous Dahl’s Dictionary, the word “Banya” came originally from the verb “banit”, which means to “clean with steam”. Russians love banya not only for taking a bath, but also to relax and to take their minds off the rest of the world. Russians soak themselves first with the extreme dry heat while entering the bathhouse. Some consider the Russian bathhouse to be similar to Finnish sauna. There are definitely some similarities, but in general, it is quite different. Originally, all of the Russian bathhouses were built of wooden logs. However, later the masonry became more and more popular and Russia and people started building banyas out of stone and bricks.
Today, when Russians realized the natural beauty and comfort of wood, wooden logs started substitute bricks for the most part in banyas’ constructions. Most Russian bathhouses, regardless of the type of material they are built from, have two departments: the changing room that stays at the same temperature that is outside, and the steam room, that takes sometimes several hours to heat up before it is ready for a visitor. Traditionally, the men would visit the banya first to face and enjoy the strongest heat. Russian men love to take along their friends any time they can and several bottles of cold beer. Most Russians find it more enjoying to visit the scorching hot bathhouse during freezing winter months which allow them to experience the full contrast of the temperatures. It is very common for them to take a break in soaking with heat and jump outside in a pile of snow or dump a bucket of freezing water upon themselves and go back to the steam room. The Russian bathhouse played an important role during traditional Russian wedding ceremony where both a bride and a groom were required to visit the bathhouse by their parents’ homes in order to purify themselves prior the actual wedding ceremony. Bathhouse was popular among both regular peasants and sophisticated Russian nobility. Tsar Peter the Great was known to be one of the passionate admirers of Russian banya.
He enjoyed banya so much that in 1703, the year that he founded St. Petersburg, Peter gave a tax break to all of the bathhouse builders.
A besom that is made of green birch and dried to its perfection is one of the most important parts of Russian bathing. Russian soak the fresh birch besom in extremely hot water before starting to lash their body with it. Most Russians also sprinkle water or homemade beverage called kvas on a top of the heated stove to make banya even hotter. For many centuries to this day the Russian bathhouse was and remains one of the most beloved and enjoyable attractions for the Russian people.
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