As the weather finally begins to warm up for most of us, we find ourselves confronted with a phrase that is fun and joyful for a selected few and a grinding necessity for the rest. Love it or hate it though, spring cleaning is at the very least a key identifier of warmer weather and – let’s be honest with ourselves – after far too many months of being trapped in our homes by the weather and a few months after cleaning up from the holiday season, our homes probably need it. Beyond just looking at it as “something we do”, it’s worth breaking it down and understanding where the phrase comes from.
As we have discussed previously, spring, of course, coming from the season, is from the Old English springan, originally meaning ‘to leap, burst forth, spread or grow’ which is derived from the Proto-Germanic sprengan. The first mention of the season spring in English can be found in the anonymous Middle English historical and religious poem Cursor Mundi (Runner of the World), writing in the 14th century that: “The third colour..As Rose red is in Spring, And seems also a burning thing.”
Looking at the second word, cleaning, thanks to its -ing suffix, is a verbal noun, with the root word coming from the Old English clæne, meaning ‘free from dirt or filth’ (in this sense) and is derived from the West Germanic klainja, meaning ‘clear or pure’. While the first use of clean can be traced back to the 880s, our word cleaning was first used in 1662 by the brilliantly named Sir Balthazar Gerbier in his even-more-brilliant-named work, A Brief Discourse Concerning the Three Chief Principles of Magnificent Building, where he mentions: “The Cleaning of the Streets.”
As a combined phrase, spring cleaning, meaning ‘the thorough cleaning of a house/room, etc., traditionally in the spring’, first appears in the Lowell Offering, a Massachusetts monthly periodical published in the early and middle 1840s, with the April 1, 1841 issue mentioning that: “I do not see how I can spare her; the spring cleaning is not done.” Aside from the Springtime scheduling, the term has also seen more generic usage in the 20th century to denote any thorough cleaning, such as in Harry Hamilton Johnston’s 1920 book, Mrs. Warren’s Daughter: A Story of the Woman’s Movement, which uses the term in a thought capacity: “It was a spiritual Spring-cleaning, as drastic and as overdone as are the domestic upheavals known by that name.” Or the May 15, 1944 issue of the American magazine Life, which notes that: “There were regular spring-cleanings going on all over.”
When it comes to the origin of spring cleaning, well, it seems to be an idea that everyone has had. Some trace the thorough cleansing to the time surrounding the Persian new year, which falls in the first day of spring, and involves the practice of khaneh tekani (“shaking the house”), where everything is cleaned for the new year. Others see spring cleaning as a product of the ancient pre-Passover house cleaning done by Jewish families, who are commanded to dispose of all leavened foodstuffs (chametz) for the entirety of the holiday (Exodus 12:15).
Either way, the concept has definitely trickled down. Looking at the Easter/Lent and Passover holidays as indications of spring, this is also a time when the Catholic church thoroughly cleans the church altar and everything associated with it or, if you’re Orthodox, the tradition is to clean the house before or during the first week of Lent, or, as some call it, Clean Week.
On the other hand, if you’re more pragmatic, spring cleaning just makes sense. It’s warm enough to open the windows, wind helps to carry dust (or cleaning fumes) from the home, and it’s too early for insects to be an issue. Additionally, at least for those with a fireplace, natural gas, or (in days past) coal furnaces, since spring is the time when our homes don’t need to be heated, it makes sense to clean the walls and furniture from debris left by using these heating sources.
So, even if you don’t enjoy spring cleaning, take heart!….people haven’t been enjoying it for centuries.