Spring Cleaning

“Swept and dusted sitting-room & kitchen 350 times. Filled lamps 362 times. Swept and dusted chamber & stairs 40 times.” Entry in an 1864  housewife’s diary

Yes, it is that time of year again to take part in the age-old tradition of SPRING CLEANING! Not only is it linked to religious and cultural traditions, our biological system seems  hard wired for tidying up, really. We have our ancestors to thank for passing down this annual activity.

Iranian culture—Every year on the spring equinox, or March 21, Iranians celebrate Nowruz or the new year. A two-week long festival, it includes a variety of celebrations. Every year before it begins, Iranians participate in khaneh takani (literally “shaking the house”) or what we would call spring cleaning. However, it’s not just a casual wipe-down of the kitchen counter tops. They believe everything must be made as good as new essentially to begin the new year in the right way. (Source: Iran Press Service)

Jewish culture—Another possible origin for the spring cleaning is Passover. Every March/April, the Jewish people celebrate their departure from Egypt. During this celebration, they are required to remove all leavened products from their homes. Some historians believe they would clean their homes from top to bottom before Passover (and therefore during the spring) to ensure that nothing leavened remain, no matter how small. (Source: The History Channel)

Christian culture— The Catholics clean the church altar the day before Good Friday, also normally in March or April. Members of the Greek Orthodox church clean house for a week leading up to Lent. (Source: Apartment Therapy)

Chinese culture—Finally, we can take a look at the Chinese. Before the Chinese New Year (usually in late January or early February), the Chinese clean their homes to sweep out the bad luck and usher in the good. (Source: The New York Times)

All around the world each year men, women and reluctant children are  on the cleaning bandwagon, but why? What precipitates the necessity to make the house “ship shape” beside a cultural norm?   Well, quite simply – life is dirty and someone has to clean it up.

For example,  during the 1800s an all out house cleaning occurred in the spring because homes used to be lit with whale oil or kerosene and heated with wood or coal. The winter months left a layer of soot and grime in every room, blech.  “In most climates, you can’t clean very effectively in the middle of the winter,” says Barbara Clark Smith, curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “Warmer weather made it possible to get the house really clean.” With the arrival of spring, doors and windows could then be opened wide. All the rugs and bedding were  taken outside and the dust beaten out of them. Floors and windows were scrubbed until sparkling. “I think the tradition has carried on because life really does seem to open up in the spring with the lengthening of days and warmth,” says Strasser. “Our bodies respond to the change in seasons.”

We may not full-on hibernate like bears, but winter makes humans sleepier and sluggish, too. As HowStuffWorks explains, fewer hours of daylight trigger the release melatonin in our brains, aka hormone that causes sleepiness. You can now scientifically let go of the guilt (and dirt) during the colder months because we physiologically do not have the energy to deep clean during colder months. But once the days start getting longer, we’re energized by more sunlight and melatonin production subsides. Not to mention all that sunlight streaming through the windows probably makes the dust we’d forgotten about highly visible. Well, at least we don’t have to scrub coal soot off the walls anymore.  But spring is often a catalyst to undertake chores that aren’t part of the weekly laundry-vacuuming-dusting routine. The latest cleaning trend is Swedish death cleaning and the “Magic of Tidying Up.”

Swedish death cleaning, or döstädning, is the premise of a recent best-selling book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter, by Margareta Magnusson.  This method is to seriously downsize the quantity of  clothes, furniture, dishes, art, photos and keepsakes that a family will not want to clean up when you have passed on. If you can not bear to go the the lengths described in Ms. Magnusson’s book, you can look into the latest organizing techniques of Marie Kondo’s hit book, Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  You can even take another step and read the article  “Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff, ” NextAve.com. This article sheds some truth that boomers’ parents are leaving behind decades of “stuff” that is worth far less than they hoped and the challenge they find to try and  sell or donate. In Marie Kondo’s words, “If you don’t like something, get rid of it,” or in the case of spring cleaning – scrub it, dust it, or beat it…!