carpet cleaner1 adjThe first signs of spring create excitement in the Lehigh Valley and throughout the Northeast. After four months or more of staying inside because of cold, snow and rain, we can hardly wait to breathe fresh air, feel the sun on our faces and shed our heavy coats and boots. But before we can enjoy the cool grass under bare feet and sip lemonade under the oak tree, we face that centuries-old ritual that’s as sure as anything: spring cleaning.

Taking the house apart to give it a thorough cleaning in spring is a centuries-old tradition which not only rose out of necessity, but also had its origins in religion, culture and our biochemical make-up. In the days before electricity and clean heating methods, everything in the house was covered with soot from coal heaters, oil lamps and candles by the end of winter. It would have been unthinkable not to open up the doors and windows, wipe down the furniture and the walls, and take the linens and carpets outside to air.

The Pennsylvania Dutch are well-steeped in these practices. Their standard for cleanliness came from their German ancestors, who are said to be the “cleanest people in the world, next to the Swiss (who are actually extreme Germans).” Johann Wolfgang Goethe, nineteenth century German writer and philosopher, said, “Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean.” Twentieth century German philosopher Otto Friedrich Bollnow once said: “’When the tradesman has straightened his shop, when the housewife has put the whole house into clean and shining condition and has even swept the street in front of the house ... then a deep warm feeling of resting settles down over the people.’” 1 In other words, cleanliness equates to peace of mind.

In some parts of Germany, spring cleaning is known as “Kehrwoche,” (sweeping week). Residents in apartment buildings are each assigned a particular week during which they are responsible for cleaning the building’s steps, cellars and sidewalks. Everyone is enthusiastically dutiful about keeping the schedule.

Clean laundry is paramount in German culture. It was in Germany that the wise old saying, “You should always wear clean underwear because you might get into an accident and end up in the hospital,” originated.

Even the beer has to meet the standards of the German Purity Law (Germany Purity Law).
Sarajane Williams, President of the Lower Macungie Historical Society, comes from six generations of Pennsylvania Dutch. Sarajane remembers her mother, who spoke Pennsylvania Dutch before she spoke English, always wearing an apron. During spring cleaning, the family stripped the beds, wiped the walls, and washed the windows with white vinegar and crumpled newspaper. They cleaned out closets and took the rugs outside to hang them and beat the dust out of them. She remembers washing and ironing the curtains or hanging them outside in the sun.

In spring, the Pennsylvanian Dutch clean more than just the house. They also refresh the soil for planting, and they eat dandelion greens, wilted with hot bacon dressing, to clean the liver.

Spring cleaning is linked historically to religious traditions in Catholicism, Judaism, and other faiths. The Catholic church cleans the altar on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday. The Orthodox Greek has a traditional house cleaning period, called “Clean Week”, during Great Lent. The Jewish tradition is to search the house and remove all traces of leaven, or chametz, from the house, leading to a general, thorough cleaning, just before Passover. Iran still continues the Persian New Year practice of “shaking the house” on the first day of Spring, while the Chinese often prepare for Chinese New Year by cleaning their homes. The Scottish practice the Hogmanay tradition of a new year cleaning on January first. Even though mid-winter might not seem like the best time to open the doors and start giving the home a good dusting, the Scots have never let a little bad weather get in the way of anything. This New Year’s tradition extends to Australia and New Zealand, where there Scottish ancestry is a common thread for many.

During the cold of winter humans produce more melatonin, which can lead us to feel less motivated and generally lazier. But when the days get longer and warmer, we usually feel a surge of energy which leads us to tackle projects around the house, like spring cleaning. Spring is officially around the corner. Are you ready for spring cleaning?

1 Deutsche Well:
2 Apartment Therapy:

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