Is Spring Cleaning an Instinct?

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The Mole spring cleaning in the Wind in the Willows

For the past three days, I have been seized with a passion for cleaning and organizing the house that my husband describes as “a little scary.” So far I’ve found a missing hairbrush, the video camera, (it was in a lunchbox under some papers under some toys), and the floor; reorganized the bedroom, built a mini-chest of drawers out of cardboard, and returned my mother’s plates–and I’m not even pregnant.

A mere week ago, my limbs hurt whenever I moved. I wasn’t sad or depressed, but it simply felt like pushing boulders every time I needed to walk over to the kitchen.

I woke up this morning with high spirits, sore arms from carrying laundry and a question: is spring cleaning an instinct?

You don’t hear much about fall cleaning or winter cleaning. No one bothers with night cleaning or rainy day cleaning. Only Spring receives special mention for its burst of cleaning.

Over on Bustle, Rachel Krantz links a sudden urge to clean to the menstrual cycle:

… science says there is actually a hormonal reason for all this: when you’re PMSing, you are often overcome by an urge to clean house — literally and figuratively.

Why? The answer lies in the way estrogen and progesterone levels affect your brain. Before our periods, our estrogen levels drop — causing serotonin levels to drop right along with it. …

But the drops in estrogen and serotonin aren’t the only things that spur the desire to clean up. Before your period, your progesterone levels also drop, which combines the impulse to clean with an instinct to “nest.” We see this tendency manifest itself more dramatically in pregnant women, who in their later months of pregnancy have low progesterone levels — which often lead them to go into a frenzy of cleaning house and nesting in order to prepare for the baby.

The PMS-related drop in progesterone is a less-intense version of the same phenomenon. 

The Window Genie blog reflects on the effects of long winter days on melatonin, which makes us sleepy:

Well, it’s no myth; winter causes us to be inherently less active and motivated. That’s right; your brain creates melatonin when there is less sunlight on cold dreary days, making you sleepy! Come spring, Mother Nature provides us a natural energy boost by giving us warmer weather and extra sunlight. The dreary days of snow are (hopefully) over and our natural instinct is to explore and interact with others. Although it may seem like a western tradition, cultures from all over the world have been spring cleaning for thousands of years.

Hopefully I can use this newfound energy to write more, because my posting has been deficient of late.

Window Genie (which I suspect is really a window-cleaning service) also notes that spring-cleaning is a cross-cultural phenomenon. I was just commenting on this myself, in a flurry of dish-washing. Do the Jews not clean thoroughly before Passover? Don’t they go through the house, removing all of the bits of old bread, vacuuming and sweeping and dusting to get out even the slightest bit of crumbs or stray yeast? Some even purchase a special feather and spoon kit to dust up the last few crumbs from the corners of the cupboards, then burn them. Burning seems a bit extreme, yet enjoyable–your cleaning is thoroughly done when you’ve burned the last of it.

I would be surprised if “spring cleaning” exists in places that effectively don’t have spring because their weather is warm all-year-long. Likely they have some other traditions, like “Dry season dusting” or “annual migration.” (I find moving an especially effective way to motivate oneself to throw out excess belongings.)

It’s no secret that sales of cleaning and organizing products ramp up in spring, but the claim that our seasonal affection for washing is merely “cultural” is highly suspect–mere “culture” is an extremely ineffective way of getting me to do the laundry.

The claim that Spring Cleaning started in ancient Iran is even more nonsensical. This is simply mistaking the presence of written records in one place and not another for evidence that a tradition is older there. There is no cultural connection between modern American housewives vacuuming their carpets and ancient Iranian cleaning habits.

I do wish people wouldn’t say such idiotic things; I certainly didn’t work through dinner last night because of a love of Zoroaster. It is far more likely that I and the Persians–and millions of other people–simply find ourselves motivated by the same instincts, For we are both humans, and humans, like all higher animals, make and arrange our shelters to suit our needs and convenience. The spider has her web, the snake his hole, the bee her hive. Chimps build nests and humans, even in the warmest of climates, build homes.

These homes must be kept clean, occasionally refreshed and rid of dust and disease-bearing parasites.

Like the circle of the seasons, let us end with the beginning, from The Wind in the Willows:

The Mole had been working very hard all morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said “Bother!” and “Oh blow!” and also “Hang spring cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling to him…