Why Is Spring Cleaning a Thing?

Spring cleaning is a bug that many of us catch — even if it's not our typical routine. newlivinghouston/flickr

For most of us, housecleaning doesn’t rank high on our list of preferred activities. But come the end of winter, even the most chore-averse among us may find ourselves getting out the broom, mop and some soap for a good old-fashioned spring cleaning.

Maybe it’s customary in your family. Or a yearly task that seems only sensible after closing up your house all winter.

But that strange compulsion to freshen your home once the snow melts and the days lengthen is actually much deeper and more universal than an annual appointment with your scrub brush. Spring cleaning is not only rooted in several different cultures but it has deep historical roots as well. It may even be embedded in human biology, as natural and enduring as the vernal flowers and warm breezes that arrive on cue each year.

Natural spring purge

In many ways, waiting until the balmier days of spring to do a major home cleanup just makes sense. It’s finally mild enough to open windows to air out rooms and take rugs outside for a good shaking. In other words, spring is a logical time for dusting, disinfecting, deodorizing and decluttering the build-up of winter debris and dirt.

spring cleaning in London, 1941
A woman in London takes advantage of warmer weather to beat dust out of her rugs in the spring of 1941. Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer/Wikimedia Commons

This was especially true in the past, when homes were heated with coal or wood and lit with whale oil or kerosene. By the end of a cold winter, everything was covered in grime and soot – likely made more apparent in the glare of longer, brighter daylight hours. And going back even further, our earlier ancestors probably also seized on nature’s time of renewal to do some domestic renewing of their own inside dank, cluttered caves, teepees and huts.

Around the world

It’s not surprising, then, that tackling post-winter household filth has cross-cultural roots going back centuries. In fact, tidying up is linked to several spring holidays around the globe.

For example, ahead of the Iranian New Year — the ancient celebration of Nowruz, which falls on the first day of spring (around March 21) – people spend weeks washing carpets, painting walls and generally organizing their homes. This regeneration ritual called khane-tekani (which literally means "shaking the house") is believed to not only clear away accumulated physical junk, but also negative mental and emotional junk in preparation for the coming year.

Take a video tour of this seasonal rite.

Likewise, the Chinese tradition is to clean house prior to the Chinese New Year celebration or Spring Festival, typically in late January or early February. Homes are scrubbed and swept to remove stagnant energy that has amassed during the preceding months to make way for good luck in the future.

Spring cleaning is also linked to the Jewish holiday of Passover, celebrating the liberation of Jews from slavery in Egypt. As the story goes, Jewish slaves fled so quickly they couldn’t wait for their yeast bread to rise, or leaven. To commemorate this event, only unleavened bread called matzah is served during Passover. In preparation, homes are scoured to remove any trace of yeast bread, a symbol of corrupting influences, like lust and desire, that must be cleared away to enjoy a more spiritual path going forward.

Seasonal biology

The spring tidy-up bug is so common, it may actually be encoded in our genes — meaning the change of season prompts a biological hankering for home hygiene.

Here’s how it likely works. During the shorter, cloudier winter days, lower light exposure triggers your pineal gland to ramp up production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Yes, that feeling of going into "hibernation" during the dreary cold months is real. And because you’re not as alert, you may not notice the buildup of dust bunnies in the corners or smudges on your window panes.

When longer, sunnier days return in spring, melatonin production slows down and you "awaken" with fresh eyes to the dirty disarray around you and renewed energy to get cleaning.

Interestingly, spring cleaning is something we share with many animal species that instinctively refresh dens and nests after winter hibernation to prepare for new offspring and increased outdoor activity.

western bluebird spring cleaning
A western bluebird removes a sack of its babies’ poop (a fecal sac) as part of spring nest cleaning. Kevin Cole/Wikimedia Commons