For many of us, spring cleaning doesn't have much to do with culture, religion or spirituality. We've been cooped up in our stuffy dwellings all winter, which can be such a downer that we sometimes let the clutter and dust pile up. Now that the weather is warm, flowers are in bloom, and the sun is shining, we emerge from our cold-weather stupor ready to freshen up our caves -- I mean -- homes. But it shouldn't surprise you that the United States doesn't hold a monopoly on spring cleaning.
Our general spring cleaning traditions have their roots in Europe, but in many places around the world, it's about much more than just getting your actual house clean. A top-to-bottom, thorough house cleaning (which, depending on where you live, may not always take place in the spring) is often a tangible representation of changes happening within. Yes, I'm talking about religious or spiritual cleansing. Let's get deep into some of the spring cleaning traditions around the world and their meaning. Maybe you'll think a little differently about your need to tackle those cobwebs!
Chinese New Year comes around anywhere from late January to mid-February on the Gregorian calendar, depending on the phases of the moon. That's why it's also known as the Lunar New Year. You may have also heard that it's the year of a certain animal or seen the parades in Chinatowns around the world, but that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Unlike my version of a New Year, which involves eating hors d'oeuvres and drinking champagne while watching a ball drop on TV, Chinese New Year is a really big deal.
During the celebration in China, the first day of the new year marks the end of the winter, so the cleaning ritual that happens before is also spring cleaning. There's a saying in Cantonese that means "wash away the dirt on Ninyabaat." Ninyabaat is the 28th day of the 12th month (the Chinese calendar having 12 months like the Gregorian one that we use). But it's just generally done before the first day of the new year. Thoroughly cleaning your home rids it of the bad luck of the past year and gets it ready to fill with the good luck sure to follow in the new one. Many people also use this time to repaint their homes and fix anything that's broken. Rooms should be swept from the entrance to the center, with trash going out the back door. The front door is for the good luck to come in! Cleaning tools like brooms are put away and not used for at least the first few days after the new year begins so they don't sweep away any good fortune.
The start of a new year is often considered a time of renewal, just like spring. Otherwise, why would we make those pesky resolutions? However, most of us probably aren't doing lots of cleaning beforehand (unless you're having people over). Plus, it's in winter. But for many cultures, the new year and spring coincide. The Persian (and Iranian, and Zoroastrian) holiday known as Nowruz falls on the first day of spring and is the first day of the Persian calendar, too. People celebrate Nowruz in numerous countries in the Middle East, Central Asia and around the world.
Before Nowruz celebrations can begin, though, there's the spring cleaning ritual known as Khaneh-Tekani, literally "shaking house." The entire family pitches in, scouring the whole house inside and out. This includes things that don't get cleaned as often during the rest of the year, such as silverware, carpets and furniture, as well as clearing the garden of winter debris. Houses might also get a fresh coat of paint. To freshen and scent the air, some people burn sandalwood or an herb called espand. They may also buy scented flowers like hyacinth. Not only is Khaneh-Tekani about physically cleaning your house, it's also about getting rid of the past and of evil spirits.
On many Asian calendars, New Year's Day falls during the spring months. In Thailand, it's April 13, marking the start of a two-day festival called Songkran. Similar festivals, which follow the same calendar, occur under different names in Laos and Cambodia. Thais not only use this time to give their houses a good deep cleaning, but they also clean any images or statues of Buddha in their homes or at shrines. During parades, people may also throw water at images of Buddha to ritually cleanse them. Often, this water is mixed with perfume and fragrant herbs, and all of the cleanliness is supposed to bring blessings and good luck in the new year.
Originally, pouring water on others was meant to show them kindness and respect; water that had run off the Buddha images would be captured and then gently poured on elders and monks to bless and purify them. If you happen to be in Thailand during Songkran, though, you'd better be prepared to get a shower -- whether you want one or not. Eventually, the water purification ritual evolved to spraying people in the streets with hoses and squirt guns. Not exactly the original spirit of the whole thing, but considering how hot it is in April in Thailand (over 100 degrees Fahrenheit or 40 degrees Celsius), you might not mind.
Like me, you probably already knew that Passover was a Jewish holiday in April, celebrating the ancient Israelites' freedom from slavery in Egypt. According to the Book of Exodus, they had to leave in such a hurry that they didn't have time to let their bread rise, or leaven. That's why Jews today only eat matzo -- a flat, unleavened bread -- during Passover. The Torah also proscribes that no leavened products, known as chametz, be present. What constitutes chametz can differ depending on who you ask, but strictly speaking, it means any product containing grains that isn't certified as kosher for Passover.
No chametz means not so much as a grain of flour. Jews may spend weeks before Passover cleaning their homes to remove it. First, they'll go through their kitchen, removing any chametz and packing it away. Then they'll clean the entire house -- between every crack and crevice -- to be sure that even the tiniest speck is gone. There's a ritual search for any remaining chametz the night before Passover, and special prayers to release ownership of any chametz that was missed.
What happens to the chametz? Some donate it or sell it to non-Jews (who also lease a sealed-off space in the home where it's stored and buy it back after Passover, depending on what it is). Many Jews burn their chametz in a bonfire. It's a seriously specialized form of cleaning that's a tribute to the past but is also designed to remove the spiritual chametz of egotism and oppression.
Not all "spring cleaning" takes place in the spring. By that I mean that for some places, the big cleaning rituals happen at other times of the year. One of the most shocking to those who don't know about it is the Quema del Diablo, which happens on December 7 each year in Guatemala. Many Guatemalans follow the Christmas traditions of caroling, decorating their houses with lights and trees, and exchanging gifts. And if you happened to visit around that time, you'd see a man in a red suit. He's not Santa Claus, though; he's the devil.
Quema del Diablo means "burning of the devil." He's believed to lurk under beds, in corners and in piles of junk. To get the nasty guy out of your house, you have to clean it thoroughly, sweeping all of your garbage outdoors into a huge pile. Some people just set the pile ablaze, while others top it with a big papier mache effigy of Satan first, dressed in a red outfit with black hair and a black beard. Some cities have communal Quema del Diablo bonfires, complete with music and fireworks. Who knew that house cleaning could end with such a party? It's all about getting rid not only of the trash and the evil that goes along with it, but finding some spiritual cleanliness before the holy holidays arrive.
HowStuffWorks explains what the Swedish death clean is, how it works, and whether it is really popular in Sweden.
Author's Note: Top 5 World Spring Cleaning Traditions
I like to think of myself as pretty knowledgeable about various cultures and traditions, but I learned a lot while researching this article. I even took a religion course in college that included Judaism, and I don't remember learning about the importance of getting rid of the chametz before Passover. I knew about some of the other celebrations and festivals mentioned here but not always about the emphasis on cleaning out. Still, it wasn't a big surprise that for many people, spring cleaning is about much more than just getting rid of junk and dirt. It's also meant to symbolize clearing out the cobwebs in the mind and soul. And sometimes it clears the way for good times ahead, too. I think that the Quema del Diablo sounds like a fun party, although some environmentalists take issue with the clouds of black smoke billowing throughout Guatemala due to the bonfires. Go figure.
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- CLAL Faculty. "Removing Chametz From A Home On Passover." This Ritual Life: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. 2000. (March 16, 2012) http://www.clal.org/rl22.html
- Edulgee, K.E. "Spring Cleaning or Khaneh-Tekani." Zoroastrian Heritage Institute. 2012. (March 16, 2012) http://heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/nowruz/nowruz2.htm
- Nguyen, Diana. "Lunar New Year Cleaning Tips." Stylelist.com. Jan. 22, 2012. (March 10, 2012) http://www.stylelist.com/2012/01/20/lunar-new-year-cleaning tips_n_1219974.html
- Ordonez, Juan Carlos. "The Devil Gets His Due." Revue Magazine. 2004. (March 15, 2012) http://old.revuemag.com/article201.html
- Parker-Pope, Tara. "Cleaning up for Chinese New Year." The New York Times. Jan. 26, 2009. (March 16, 2012) http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/01/26/cleaning-up-for-chinese-new-year/
- Persian Mirror. "Khaneh-Tekani." 2004. (March 15, 2012) http://www.persianmirror.com/celebrations/noruz/noruz.cfm
- Thompson, Nick. "Water fight! Soaked at Thailand's Songkran's Festival." CNN. April 18, 2011. (March 15, 2012) http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/asiapcf/04/14/thailand.songkran.festival/index.html
- Tourism Authority of Thailand, Songkran Splendours. "History of Songkran." 2010. (March 16, 2012) http://songkran.tourismthailand.org/history.php