Facial hair, cursed crumbs, pesky insects, and melatonin: the origins of Spring Cleaning

By , on April 15, 2013


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SPRING: in your step. In the air. That broken one in the mattress.

Sunshine. Flowers. Solstice. Sandals. Pollen. Dust. Cleaning.

Renewal. Rebirth. Awakening. Regeneration. Renovating.

Soft pastels. Blush pinks. Grass greens. Fluffy-chick yellows. Squeaky clean whites: from cleaning.

Spring is here, and so are its common associations.

Cleaning, organizing, rearranging; spring cleaning: an obsessive-compulsive person’s dream come true. Once a year, every year.

But where did the annual tradition of turning your house upside-down to get it right-side-up originate?

“Shaking the house”

This dates back to the time of the Persian Empire, the practice of “khooneh tekouni” at the start of every Nowruz or Persian New Year, one day before the spring.

Khooneh tekouni, literally “shaking the house,” involves complete cleaning of the house from top to bottom. Nothing is spared the shake-down: from ceiling to floor, drapes to furniture and everything in between.

The tradition also entails the purchase of flowers (especially tulips and hyacinths) and new personal attire. Cleaning and shopping. Throwing out and acquiring. A Yin and Yang of sorts.

The tradition is associated with the “rebirth of nature,” and is observed by almost every household in Iran.

Family visits; parties; unshaven beards until the New Day (on which facial hair comes off as a symbol of personal cleaning and leaving old habits behind); and a practice of leaving sweets outside the house, to be brought up in the morning by the early bird are all part of the ritual.  Sounds like a riot.

This practice of cleaning the house to herald the New Year is also prevalent in Chinese and Scottish cultures; although their New Year’s days do not coincide with the start of the season, thereby not as fittingly called spring cleaning.

“Cleansing the home”

Perhaps another origin of the practice is found in the Jewish Pesah or Passover custom. The revered holiday of commemorating the flight of the Jews from ancient Egypt occurs two weeks after the Jewish New Year.

The slaves in Egypt, Jews and non-Jews alike, were fed matzah or unleavened bread; something which eventually became a symbol of victory over oppression to the Jews.

Each Passover, matzah is customarily eaten, both as a reminder of the domination the Jews overcame and as an expression of gratitude for their freedom.

It is considered arrogant and ungrateful to have chametz or leavened bread in the house during the time of Passover; so much so that even the crumbs from leavened bread viewed as offensive.

Matzah: yes. Chametz: no, no, no. Lest God be offended, the Jews throw out all chametz, and scour the entire house before Passover, to be sure they do not miss any of those cursed chametz crumbs. Better to be safe than fall out of favor with the Divine.

Interestingly enough, the hunt for chametz crumbs, or bedikat chametz, is traditionally done by candlelight after the house is cleaned, on the night before the Passover. Nothing like a little romantic candle-lit crumb-hunting to get your Passover going.

The Passover celebration falls around April, hence the close associations with the origin of spring cleaning.

Weather to clean, or not to clean

In North America and northern Europe, the custom of spring cleaning took on a more practical function, given the continental and wet climates of those regions.

19th century America did not have the modern-day conveniences of Dust Busters and vacuum cleaners, but they did have to deal with dust, somehow. The month of March was generally the best time for dusting: already warm enough to open windows and doors, but not warm enough for insects to be a problem, as was the pesky case during the hot summer months.

Nature’s hand aided the cleaning process, with the high winds carrying the dust out of the house. To this day and for this same reason, rural households take on cleaning projects involving the use of fume-generating chemical products in the month of March.

Biology and the neats

Spring cleaning is tied in with a very practical, biological reason, as well.

Winter-time means less sunlight, given the shorter, often dull and dreary gray days. Less sunlight means more melatonin production in our bodies. More melatonin means more yawns and sleepiness. Humans – sunlight + melatonin = zzzzzzzzzz = mess left for another day. Who wants to clean when you’re sleepy and sluggish?

The spring heralds more sunlight, thereby reducing the production of melatonin; our body wakes up to a new day, new energy, a messy house. The birth of spring cleaning.

There is no spring where I live. I live on the side of the world with two seasons: wet and dry; and global warming has made sure that those two now co-exist in confusion. But the tradition of spring cleaning, oddly enough, still holds. Maybe I am part-Persian/Jew/Chinese/Scot. Or simply OC like that. No matter. It is a good way to kick the procrastinator in the bum and pick up that mop.

Now to refresh the lyrics of Happy Working Song in my memory.