Last fall, while writing an article for NorthBridge Magazine about holidays, I interviewed a recent immigrant from India about the traditions behind Diwali. One detail she shared with me keeps ringing in my head like an insistent wind chime now that Christmas is just three days away: for Diwali, at least in her family, the first step of the preparations is a thorough house-cleaning. Because that’s how you make the house ready to honor the gods of Diwali: by being clean and orderly.
I love this detail. I love the notion of starting the holiday with, first and foremost, a clean house. Rudimentary research has led me to believe that housecleaning is a typical preparation for the Chinese New Year as well, but I’ve never heard of housecleaning as directly associated with any Christian holiday. To be sure, lots of people including me clean their house before Thanksgiving or Christmas if they are hosting houseguests or having a party, but I don’t think the practice of cleaning the house simply for its own sake typically figures into any Western holiday rituals.
But this year, I’m finding myself drawn to the idea of cleaning my house before Christmas. For one thing, I have time this year. For the past several years we’ve had guests – some staying with us and some staying at my parents’ house next door but spending plenty of time over here – during Christmas, and my preparations have centered more around making up beds and stocking the fridge than dusting or mopping.
But this year it’s just the four of us on the farm, and I managed to plan out my work this month so that I hit all necessary deadlines by yesterday and am essentially deadline-free from now through New Year’s, which gives me some time to tidy and clean. But mostly, I just like the idea of greeting the holiday with the serenity of a clean, neat house. It’s so different from the bustle-bordering-on-chaos that frequently marks the holidays for us. When Rick and I were in our twenties, we would often be in such a last-minute rush of shopping, cooking, and wrapping presents before traveling to wherever we were going over Christmas (which often involved day trips to three different households) that we’d leave our own home an absolute mess. I’d rationalize that once all the presents we were giving people were out of the way, it would be easy to pick up, and after Christmas was over we’d have more time for it too. In recent years I grew less accepting of leaving a messy house behind when we walked out the door, but we still tended to leave a small whirlwind of shopping bags, unwashed cooking implements and half-opened mail in our wake as we embarked on our Christmas festivities.
This year I have the urge to make things really tidy before Christmas day arrives. I’m running the washing machine right now and trying to wrap up my holiday baking tonight so that I can clean the kitchen thoroughly. I’m hoping to vacuum and clean the bathrooms even though with no guests this year, there will be no one but the four of us to notice (which, let’s face it, really means just the one of us – me – to notice, since no one else actually cares if the sinks are scrubbed or the rugs lint-free). I’m planning to wrap presents tomorrow so that I can get all the paper and tape picked up right away. Maybe it’s just that I’m getting older, but I no longer have the same merry tolerance for cheerful holiday mess that I once did. Furthermore, a decade of parenthood stands behind me to remind me that once the kids have opened all their Christmas presents, there’s more mess, not less, to deal with.
In a way, this pre-Christmas clean-up has a certain intrinsic symmetry. I’ve long appreciated the European observance of Boxing Day because of the purging effect of getting rid of any excess – clothes, toys – when Christmas is over. It seems therefore to make sense to want to start the holiday as well as end it with a level of emptiness, of clean surfaces and an absence of clutter.
Of course, intending to clean the house is a lot different from doing it. But I still have two days, and having just returned from yet another fairly dreadful shopping excursion, I have no desire to take to the roads again between now and Christmas. So maybe over the next two days I’ll do the scrubbing, dusting, sweeping and vacuuming that I’m dreaming of. If not, I’ll continue to make it a goal for future Christmas celebrations. And if not Christmas, there’s always New Year’s. I like the idea of starting the New Year with a neat and well-scrubbed house.
In the Diwali tradition, as I understand it, it’s to welcome godliness into the home for the holidays. Whether as a spiritual practice or just a way of making the household feel more serene at a generally less-than-serene time, I like the idea, and I’m going to do my best to honor it.