Spring cleaning is largely considered a Western cultural phenomenon, but these traditions and annual tidying celebrations could also inspire you to spiff up your space.

By Zee Krstic
July 22, 2019
Classic Villa with Chinese Lunar New Year Decorations
Credit: Lane Oatey, Blue Jean Images / Getty Images

Believe it or not, the concept of spring cleaning-in which families do their best to make their homes and feel lighter and renewed for another year-has cultural roots all over the world. For Americans and many living in the Western hemisphere, spring cleaning came to because, historically, homes became very dirty throughout the winter season. When log cabins were widely used in the eastern half of the United States, they were covered in mud and clay before the winter season to insulate homes against the bitter cold; in the spring, Americans would clean the home's exterior and disinfect its interior, which may explain our love for the annual cleaning tradition.

Elsewhere, the start of a new year or a new season is often associated with looking toward the future, which includes a good amount of cleaning and housework. In regions outside North America, similar cleaning rituals can span across a certain time period or season, as it does in the United States, or they can occur on a single day. While the context and customs behind these traditions may surprise you, each can inspire a cleaning session at home and in the community, even if you are thousands of miles away from its country of origin.

Songkran in Thailand

Songkran is a two-day national holiday in Thailand that revolves around the celebration of Thai New Year in April. According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Songkran celebrates ancient traditions by allowing people to take to the streets to soak each other with water. In Bangkok, the whole city takes part in a celebratory water fight-Buddhists will also mix water with herbs and perfume to pour over Buddha statues and other religious shrines, hoping to bring good luck into the new year. While each Thai region celebrates the holiday differently, many choose to clean the inside of their homes, particularly by laundering all of their items and by washing down surfaces around their living spaces.

Nowruz in Iran

Also known as the Persian New Year, Nowruz is celebrated by millions of people across the world, in Asia, the Balkan region of Europe, and in the Caucasus region. The United Nations describes the holiday as "an ancestral festivity marking the first day of spring and the renewal of nature." It's a secular celebration that often falls on the first day of spring, involving plenty of eating, dancing, and certain cultural traditions, including cleaning and refurbishing the home. Children also pitch in to help clean up during a process known as "Khaneh-Tekani," which literally translates to "shaking house," and clean things that don't get attention during the year, including carpets, furniture, and intricate details like silverware.

Many families also choose to repaint their homes during Nowruz, according to Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and will redecorate their new spaces with new furniture, fresh flowers, and other symbols to welcome good luck in the new year. Adding a fresh coat of paint to spaces inside your home can help areas feel larger-and even painting the ceiling can add new depth to underwhelming interiors.

Lunar New Year in China

Steeped in Chinese culture, this annual celebration is known for vibrant colors, delicious cuisine, plenty of fireworks, and celebrating. Before the parties begin, however, those who celebrate the Lunar New Year often take the time to dust all surfaces, sweep and mop floors, vacuum carpets and flooring, and steam linens across the home, according to CNN. But those celebrating don't actually clean their homes after the holiday has officially begun: "Cleaning of any kind on the first day is strictly forbidden-don't even wash the dishes," Chieu Luu, a producer working on CNN's International Desk in Hong Kong, writes. "You cleaned your home to rid it of any bad luck before the New York-now you want to be sure not to wipe, sweep, or wash away any of the good luck that arrived at the stroke of midnight." While you certainly don't want to clean things that don't need to be cleaned yet, Lunar New Year might inspire you to get a jumpstart on spring cleaning by deep cleaning your home just after the holiday season has ended.

Quema del Diablo in Guatemala

This dramatic festival has roots in the Roman Catholic tradition, but it's celebrated by most families in this Central American nation before other religious celebrations during the first week of December. Because the festival requires residents to burn trash in the street-a practice that grew out of a religious and cultural tradition established in the early 1700s, according to National Geographic-families will often band together to empty all of the waste in a home, giving their spaces a deep clean in the process. The celebration pushes Guatemalans to rid themselves of all clutter and trash in their homes, leading to spick-and-span living spaces before the Christmas holiday season begins.

Tulip Festival in the Netherlands

While this tradition is more a reflection of the Dutch-American culture than it is solely of those living in the Netherlands today (which is often inaccurately associated with Swedish "death cleaning"), it's steeped in Dutch culture nonetheless, according to Michael Douma's published exploration of the event in the journal American Studies. Every spring, residents in Pella, Iowa, participate in a community-wide street cleaning session before an annual Tulip Festival-and this cultural tradition also occurs throughout the Midwest, where many Dutch immigrants settled in the early 1930s, according to Douma. This tradition is an admirable example of how communities can come together to beautify common spaces-and how you might be able to organize a community-wide cleaning day.

Comments (6)

July 20, 2020
Really appreciated the different culteral styles and historical content in this article.
July 20, 2020
Do you have a proofreader? If not, you might want to consider getting one.
August 7, 2019
It is true that early settlers repaired the chinking in their log homes before every winter. Spring cleaning was probably done as a religious and cultural practice long before the advent of history. The primary reason for spring cleaning was the soot from peat, wood, oil, and coal fires, NOT temporary earth covering the exterior of the building. I don’t think that practice, if it occurred at all, was all that widespread. For starters, earth is heavy. Where are they going to haul it from? Also, earth is not a very good insulator. It would take a two foot thickness to equal one inch of furry sheepskin or a wool weaving with airspace behind. In any earth covering, such as sod houses, the earth acts as thermal mass, and shifts the heat gain and heat loss by several hours, but those were permanent installations, not seasonal. An understanding that germs caused disease still wasn’t universal among American doctors until the turn of the Twentieth Century. So the idea that earlier people were purposely disinfecting their homes every spring is ludicrous. Lyme was an ingredient in whitewash, which was redone fairly often, but there was no understanding of its mild anti-bacterial qualities. Sorry, the opening paragraphs Just seemed so “off,” that I didn’t think I would learn anything by reading the rest of the article.
August 7, 2019
In Greece, the throwing the water on the sidewalks and then pushing it with a broom is a must. When I moved into Astoria Queens in New York, I was walking down the street and a door flew open to one of the businesses. The lady poured water on the side walk in JANUARY and started cleaning the sidewalk with her broom. I thought "Aaahhhh, this is just like being at Auntie Helen's (Thea Eleni's) house in Athens." Except in Greece they clean the sidewalk in the spring and summer.
August 7, 2019
Also, the Italian tradition of throwing out furniture through the windows on New Year's Eve. Watch out for those refrigerators!
July 29, 2019
What a fabulous education of world traditions! Thank you for sharing this.