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Spring Cleaning

April 21, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The french fry did not become America's most popular vegetable until industry took over the jobs of of washing, peeling, cutting, and frying the potatoes – and cleaning up the mess.” - Michael Pollan

I don't think that T.S. Eliot was referring to cleaning when he claimed that April is the cruellest month. However, April is often the culturally accepted time to clean out the old. The origin of spring cleaning is unknown, though Google will tell you that spring-cleaning means “a thorough cleaning of the house or room, especially undertaken in spring.” I guess that I assumed that since spring was in the phrase itself, one would expect the action to fall in springtime. So, this definition seems unhelpful. Wikipedia, then, lists a number of different possibilities. A few of these claim that the foundational practice of spring cleaning stems from Jewish or Persian traditions. The article is sketchy at best.

There are a couple of possibilities that deserve to be explored, however. First, spring cleaning may, in fact, relate to a religious expectation or practice. For example, the Jewish tradition celebrates Passover in April. Among some of the Passover guidelines, families are asked to remove leavened bread from their diets. Therefore, they may spend extra time removing unclean items from their homes in general. In this way, spring cleaning might link moral, ethical and religious law to everyday experience. Even more interesting, then, would be to wonder why spring cleaning gained popularity outside of the Jewish tradition. Clearly, the practice filled a general practical need, regardless of religion.

Another possible explanation of spring cleaning can be found in the Catholic religion. Lent is observed during the weeks leading up to Easter, during which, it is common to fast or abstain from an extravagance. Similar to the Jewish tradition, followers are asked to purge something in honor of the struggles of their ancestors. I find it interesting, then, that a specifically religious practice would transfer to another religious group and then become somewhat mainstream. In other words, it seems likely that the idea behind spring cleaning is based upon some sort of practical experience. If this is true, then there is a commonality between large groups of people, independent of culture and/or religion. In the essay on Custom and Convention in the Syntopicon, Mortimer Adler writes, “Opinion normally suggests relativity to the individual, custom or convention relativity to the social group. Either may be involved in the origin of the other. The individual may form his opinions under the pressure of prevailing customs of thought or action; the customary beliefs or practices of a society or culture may, and usually do, result from opinions which have come to prevail.” Whatever makes those ideas prevail is difficult to trace.

There is no denying, however, that spring cleaning is linked to the season. Many people view spring as a time of opening, a refreshing practice after the cold months of winter. There is warmth to invite the open doors, sunshine to shake out rugs, hang laundry or simply invite fresh air into the home. Therefore, spring cleaning is an example of a human custom that combines both nature and social organization.

Even more fascinating than the idea that spring cleaning can transcend the boundaries of specific religions, is the way in which it has fallen out of practice. The phrase is still understood, and yet, if there is a spring cleaning, it is far less of a process than it used to be. This is partly due to technological advances. However, it is also due to changes in lifestyle and perhaps religious backing. Humans do not feel bound by this “law” with the same seriousness and severity as before. The idea of being “unclean” still carries very negative connotations, which indicates society still struggles with this particular taboo (but perhaps our definition of unclean has changed?). Morality is still partially bound up in the idea of clean, which brings us back to the idea of a religious foundation for spring cleaning. Adler writes, “Aquinas conceives positive rules as 'determinations' of, rather than 'deductions' from, natural law.” If this is true in the case of spring cleaning, then it becomes doubly tricky to counteract the custom. First of all, it has been tied to a religious belief, and therefore given a stigma or taboo. Secondly, it participates with a natural human experience, which is undeniably difficult to argue.

However, if we no longer take spring cleaning seriously, why do we continue to refer to it or utilize the phrase? As long as the phrase continues to be understood, then isn't some portion of the custom still in practice? Adler writes, “Custom is both a cause and an effect of habit. The habits of the individual certainly reflect the customs of the community in which he lives; and in turn, the living customs of any social group get their vitality from the habits of its members. A custom which does not command general compliance is as dead as a language no longer spoken or a law no longer observed.” Clearly, Adler understands custom to be a practice, and not a rhetorical concept. I wonder, however, if we could challenge this based off of the example of spring cleaning. Is it possible that “spring cleaning” is now understood in only a rhetorical sense? Or, perhaps this is simply a phase involved in losing the custom altogether.

Most interesting, however, is the idea that custom is both a freedom, but also a restriction. Customs are often the most conservative factor in societies. It is precisely these foundational principles that become so difficult to sway or change, more difficult even than actual law! Adler states, “Without that support it may be a law on the books but not in practice, for the authority of a law cannot long prevail against a contrary custom, except through a degree of coercion so oppressive as to produce rebellion.” While I doubt that anyone will take such an extreme stance with spring cleaning, it is interesting to see what levels of usage and adherence still exist. Either way, now is the time to wash the windows – or so they say.

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