By Angie Mellor
There is more to spring cleaning than an annual undertaking of deep cleaning the entire house. While some may think of spring cleaning as mopping, dusting, flipping mattresses and getting to those nooks and crannies that may have been neglected through the year, they may be surprised to learn the origins and spirit behind the yearly tradition.
American Spring-Cleaning Tradition
In America, especially in climates that experience a cold or wet winter, spring cleaning typically happens in March or April, when it is warm enough to open the windows and let fresh air sweep through the house.
In times before central heating, houses that were heated by burning wood or coal, built an accumulation of soot and grime. The warmer weather of spring presented an opportunity to clean the layers of soot from the walls in American households.
Spring-cleaning in Chinese homes are scoured from top to bottom, in efforts to remove any bad luck or bad spirits.
Additionally, the warmth of the sun and strong winds helped to clear the house of dust and germs that collected throughout the winter.
However, the origins of spring cleaning date back centuries in Chinese, Jewish, and Middle Eastern cultures, not just as a way to clean and prevent illness, but as a celebration of a new year and a reminder that winter, no matter how long it seems, does not last forever.
In preparation for the Chinese New Year, homes are scoured from top to bottom, in efforts to remove any bad luck or bad spirits.
Chinese people clean their houses to get ready for good luck in the New Year. Trash and debris are taken out of the back door so that front door is open for good luck to come in. However, once the celebration begins, there should be no cleaning done, so the good luck of the New Year is not swept away.
In Judaism, spring cleaning is completed prior to the Passover which dates back to biblical times when the Jews were living in captivity in Egypt. In remembrance of their time as slaves, the week of Passover forbids eating any leavened bread or fermented beverages.
Traditionally, homes were cleaned and cleared of any “leavened” bread, down to the smallest of crumbs.
This practice also included cleaning and organizing the house while searching for non kosher food and drink. Because the Jews were forced to eat unleavened bread (bread without yeast) or “matzah,” during their captivity as slaves in Egypt, ridding the house of any leavened food products can be seen as a symbol of the hardships the Jews overcame by escaping from slavery.
Catholics and Christians Spring-Cleaning
Catholic and Christian tradition follows a similar practice during lent, which is observed over forty days to represent the time Jesus spent in the desert.
Commonly, an observant will give up a luxury during that time to represent the sacrifice of Jesus’ crucifixion. During the time leading up to Easter, also known as Holy Week, Catholics and Christians’ houses are thoroughly cleaned in preparation, beginning with “clean Monday.
In particular, the altar is cleaned on “Maundy Thursday,” the day before Jesus’ crucifixion, so that observers can spend the following two days “Good Friday” and “Holy Saturday,” in contemplation of the sacrifice and death of Jesus.
Many sources believe the phrase “Spring Cleaning” originated from the Persian language, which roughly translates to “shake the house,” a deep cleaning, which is completed before to the start of the Persian new year.
As described in an NPR article, “Nowruz,: Persian New Year’s Table Celebrates Spring Deliciously,” written by April Fulton and Davar Ardalan, the thirteen day celebration of the Persian New Year, Nowruz (new day) represents not only the first day of spring, but also renewal, rebirth, a fresh start. Nowruz is a time to “shake the house,” but it is also a time to reconnect with friends and relatives.
Although spring cleaning may bring to mind images of sweeping, and dusting, its spirit has deeply rooted traditions in many cultures.
Fulton and Ardalan noted that families come together to count down to the new year at the “hafsteen,” a ceremonial table which can include symbols of spring and renewal. Some examples include a book of poetry, bright orange goldfish swimming in a bowl symbolizing life, and a mirror and candles, representing an opportunity to reflect on the past and look forward to the future.
Depending on the family’s tradition, these items are optional and are added in accordance to their preference. However, there are seven items that should be included at the hafsteen table, since seven is a lucky number.
Fulton and Ardalan wrote, “Each item begins wit the letter “sin” (s) in Persian, and each item is a symbol of spring and renewal, including:
Their article also noted that one of the “s” items from the hafsteen table that is used to conclude the celebration on the thirteenth day of the New Year is the sprouts. “Sabzeh” is brought to a picnic on the last day of the New Year. Thirteen is considered an unlucky number, so as a token of fortune, the sprouts are tossed into running water as a reminder of “letting go” of any bad luck the New Year may bring.
Spring-Cleaning in General Senses
Likewise, spring cleaning may serve as a physical action for the metaphorical “renewal” that is practiced in both Chinese and Persian new year celebrations. Besides thoroughly scrubbing, scouring, and sanitizing, many use this time as an opportunity to purge unwanted clutter and belongings from their houses, thus creating a new beginning or a clean slate for the new year.
Or, as seen in Jewish and Christian practices, spring cleaning is part of preparations for the Passover and Easter.
While the thought of spring cleaning may bring to mind images of sweeping, dusting, and window washing, the spirit of spring cleaning has deeply rooted traditions in many cultures across the world.
Whether preparing for a new year, or a fresh new start, perhaps a different perspective of this annual event can bring a little more motivation to an otherwise tedious and arduous job, as long as it ends in celebration!