Australia is in the middle of spring. After the physical darkness of winter the spring winds are rejuvenating. They promise excitement: activity after cold months of dormancy, huddled in front of a heater. They speak of new lands and invite travel – out into the garden no longer frosted over in the morning, out into the neighbourhood where the daffodils are blooming, out into the wild blue yonder. They hint at summer with the cherry blossoms bursting colour into a sepia-winter landscape. They allude to the baking hot days with sunscreen and sunhats just over the horizon, when the washing can go straight out onto the Hills Hoist, rather than onto an inside clothes rack that clutters up our loungeroom. I always feel rejuvenated in spring.
The term ‘spring clean’ is indicative of a good clean-out, a refresh of the spirit and a door to newness. According to Wikipedia (which may or may not be the most reliable source), some common associations about spring cleaning are:
The Iranian Nowruz, the Persian new year, which falls on the first day of spring. Iranians continue khaneh tekani (literally “shaking the house”) just before the Persian new year, thoroughly cleaning everything.
The ancient Jewish practice incorporates thoroughly cleansing the home in anticipation of the springtime festival of Passover (Pesach), the week-long Passover holiday. Strict prohibitions forbid eating or drinking anything which may have been leavened or fermented (Exodus 12:15, 19). A thorough “spring cleaning” of the house is followed by a traditional hunt for chametz crumbs (bedikat chametz) by candlelight on the evening before the holiday begins.
The Catholic church thoroughly cleans the church altar and everything associated with it on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, in the Northern Hemisphere Spring. This spring cleaning persists today in Greece, and other Orthodox nations, where it is traditional to clean the house thoroughly either right before or during Clean Week, the first week of Great Lent.
North Americans and northern Europeans, living in wet climates, use spring cleaning for practical value. During 19th century America, prior to the vacuum cleaner, March was warm enough to open windows and doors (but not warm enough yet for insects), and high winds could carry the dust out of the house. For the same reason, modern rural households often use the month of March for cleaning projects involving the use of chemical products which generate fumes. Also, the coal furnaces wouldn’t run at this time of year, so a year’s worth of soot could be washed away from walls and furniture.
In Scotland, “New Year’s cleaning” is traditionally done on Hogmanay (December 31), a practice now also widespread in Ireland and North America.
In Japan, “big cleaning” is done in late December, before the new year on January 1. During the Edo period (1603–1868) “soot cleaning” occurred on December 13: homes were cleaned in order to welcome gods of the year.
Among Neo-Pagans, biannual equinox cleanings are sometimes performed at the onset of spring and autumn, symbolising the beginning a new cycle with a clean spiritual slate.
Whichever custom is observed, and for whatever reason, spring cleaning is a common theme that there are annual big cleans, more than the usual maintenance, across a range of cultures and religions. Maybe progressively, over some years, attacking big items so that progressively things get cleaned.
Why is the cleaning done in spring given so much prominence compared to cleaning at other time?
This is not quite clear as many of the festivals mentioned in the origins of the term don’t occur in the season of spring, however, it:
- sets an annual rhythm: like New Year’s Resolutions, it’s an annual ‘renewal’
- the extent of the clean is deeper.
Perhaps the term refers to the VERB, and people JUMP into the process with enthusiasm – and not with fear, as contemporary ‘deep cleans’ (for Covid) imbue.
Whatever the reason or the association, the outcome of a spring clean is a transformation – just as, when the spring winds beckon me, my soul feels rejuvenated.