In English, the term ‘spring clean’ dates to around 1855-1860, but the act of spring cleaning began far back into the distant past. It’s a cultural tradition with advocates all over the world.
Shaking the house clean in Iran
Iran celebrates their New Year with festivals, customs, rituals and symbolism that date back before the country’s current Islamic culture. The day of the vernal equinox, 21 March, is the first day of the solar cycle, when there are more minutes of daylight per day than there are of darkness. This is the day when Iranians celebrate Now Rouz (Persian New Year). For two weeks, Iranians adorn their streets and houses with symbols of burning and planting to signify renewal. It’s a time of much optimism for the new season; a time for refreshing and reinvigorating life, a process that is perhaps most apparent in the tradition of khooneh takouni - ‘shaking the house’ - a custom that lives up to its name.
Khooneh takouni is a vigorous spring cleaning ritual. Iranians buy new clothes to wear and every corner of the family home is scoured and cleaned; nothing is missed. The scent of flowers in vases clears the air of stale odours and every household item from the rugs, curtains, bedding, floors, ceilings, windows, cupboards and shelves down to the last ornament receives a thorough cleaning. Once the house has been shaken, the Now Rouz can start and spring can arrive once more.
Cleansing the home at Passover
Another ritual that could identify the beginnings of spring cleaning is the ancient Jewish practice of thoroughly cleansing the home before the spring-time memorial feast of Passover. Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) is among the most important festivals in the Jewish year. It is a time when Jewish people remember how the children of Israel escaped from slavery imposed by the Pharoah, when Moses led them out of Egypt over 3000 years ago. Jewish people believe that Moses warned the Pharaoh that God would send devastating plagues if he did not let his people go. There were ten plagues culminating in the death of the first born. The festival is called Passover because before the final plague began, God told Moses his people should mark their doorposts with lamb's blood. God would then know which houses to 'pass over' and spare them from the plague.
Eventually the plagues achieved their aim and the Pharaoh told Moses that he and the Israelites must leave at once. The Jewish people left Egypt so quickly that their bread did not have time to rise. To this day, during Passover, Jewish people eat unleavened bread called Matzah in remembrance of the rapid escape from Egypt. There are strict prohibitions against eating or drinking anything which may have been leavened or fermented with yeast. In fact, Jews must clean their homes of even the smallest remnants of chametz (leavened food) for the length of the holiday. They do this by "spring cleaning" the home. The cleaning is followed by a traditional hunt for chametz crumbs by candlelight (called bedikat chametz) on the evening before Passover.
Sweeping away bad luck in China
Another contender in our search for the origin of spring cleaning can be found in China. The Chinese believe spring cleaning in preparation for the New Year brings good fortune. At the end of the year, Chinese homes are cleaned from top to bottom. The Chinese sweep floors and wash and clean their homes to remove any bad luck and misfortune that may have gathered there during the year and be lingering ready to continue into the next. Once the homes are clean and the floors swept, the Chinese welcome and preserve good fortune by refraining from sweeping for a number of days at the start of the new year. The act is believed to prevent them sweeping away any good fortune that came into the house at the turn of the year.
Ancient man cleaning for survival
Tradition and rituals aside, is there a scientific reason for cleaning in spring? Does the spring cleaning habit predate all cultures, with a trigger found in our biological make up? Some people think so. During the shorter days of winter, when exposure to daylight is limited, our pineal gland produces melatonin -the hormone that induces sleepiness. Ancient humans’ lack of exposure to light would have led their bodies and minds to become slower, more subdued. As the days grew longer in March, the increased exposure to light caused melatonin levels to drop and energy levels to recover. During the long winter’s slumber, dirt will have gathered in the huts and caves that our ancestors called home. As spring brought warmer temperatures, bacteria would begin to grow. With vitality restored, ancient man took to spring cleaning, a natural remedy to prevent infection and disease.
It just makes sense
Ultimately, spring is a great time to clean our homes and always has been. Before central heating, people kept their houses shut tight against the cold of winter. Homes were heated with coal, oil and wood and lit with candles. It’s a lifestyle that produces a lot of smoke and ash. Spring, with its warmer days and lighter evening was, and still is, an opportunity to make a dwelling where the smell of stale smoke hung from the walls, fresh again. Windows and doors can be opened, so dust can be cleared outside and washed cloth and linen will dry quicker now that is can be hung in the breeze.
Could it be that so many different cultures embark on rituals and celebrations that involve spring cleaning because, this time of year is simply the best time to refresh and clean your home?
For a chemical-free spring clean all you need is an e-cloth and water!