O-souji or the art of cleaning your way into a new year

January is the perfect time for a fresh start. It's time to organize your home and clear your mind for the year ahead.

In North America, we tend to wait for spring to give our homes a thorough cleaning. It's all about opening the windows, letting the fresh air in and chasing the winter dust away. While it's the logical thing to do, especially for giving the windows a proper cleaning, every year I feel compelled to clean and purge the house somewhere between Christmas and the New Year.

I assume it's got something to do with the few extra minutes of daylight we get. There's probably some part of me that says: "Hibernation is over; get moving!" Then again, maybe it has more to do with another part of me rebelling against the overwhelming amount of gifts I've seen exchanged over Christmas time? While I really enjoy a few well-chosen and meaningful ones, I become uneasy at the thought of all the waste that goes along with the rest of them.

No matter what the actual reason is, all I know is that I need to clean and make room before the new year hits. You know what? So do a lot of Japanese people. While the reasons are strictly historical and don't have much to do with sunlight or Christmas gifts exhaustion, we kind of end up doing the same thing. This custom is called o-souji which loosely translates to "big cleaning".

This habit goes back to the Edo period (1603 - 1868) when homes were heated with wood stoves and fireplaces. By the time December came around, the interior of houses and castles were quite dirty from the sooth and needed a good clean before the new year's celebration. Over time, this habit took on added symbolism and became a purification ritual to mark the end of the year and to properly welcome the new one.

What's nice about o-souji is that it is not limited to private spaces, it also extends to schools and workplaces, leaving them fresh and ready for the coming year.

The big cleaning is meant to go beyond the day to day housework. It's about getting into all the overlooked corners of your home, such as the top of light fixtures, the spaces under the furniture or that no man's land at the bottom of your closets, and clearing away the dust and cobwebs. If you're anything like me, you'll come across a few... ok, a lot of hairballs. We have a joke about farming sheep under the bed... That duvet does lose a lot of feathers!

One of the most important aspects of o-souji is known as susuharai (dust cleaning). At face value, it simply means getting rid of all the dust and dirt from the house. It's a simple, practical gesture, that takes on a spiritual meaning to most during the big cleaning. Wiping down those surfaces actually gives your mind a break and allows you to reflect on the blessings of the past year and to prepare for the one to come. O-souji is more than a cleaning of the house, it's a way to prepare oneself for new beginnings.

Since opening the windows in late December to freshen a room is not an option in this part of the world, I like to light a scented candle to raise the mood and do some happy cleaning while planning the year to come. You'll see, the cozier you make a room, the more you'll want to make it perfect.

On a practical level, it may not be possible to clean the house all at once. In smaller apartments you may be able to get away with an hour or so per room and be done in an afternoon, but larger houses with garages and basement could make this an all-week affair. The important thing is to concentrate on what feels good and refreshing. As long as you get the ball rolling, there are no laws preventing you from extending it over a few days in January. The last thing you want is to start worrying about it. If you take the fun out of it, you won't want to continue.

So for now, I say get these dust cloths out, find your brushes and brooms and get cleaning! Your house will thank you and so will your mind.