The origins behind New Year's resolutions

Written by nick redfern Google
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From past to present

The origins behind New Year's resolutions
Pledging on January 1 (Getty Thinkstock)

"Good resolutions are simply checks that men draw on a bank where they have no account"

— Oscar Wilde, poet and writer

There's probably not a single one of us who hasn't made one at some point or another. And there's probably not a single one us who hasn't broken one just a few days later. We're talking about New Year's Resolutions. Whether it's giving up smoking, getting some exercise, or losing weight, resolutions are easy to come up with, but much harder to keep! But, very few people give much thought to why we have New Year's Resolutions in the first place. Amazingly, it's a tradition that dates back to the dawn of history and is steeped in folklore and mythology.

New directions in a new year

The origins behind New Year's resolutions
Resolutions at the dawn of civilisation (Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

While you might assume that New Year's Resolutions began with the likes of the anti-smoking brigade, weight-loss clubs, politically-correct types, and annoying do-gooders, you would be very wrong. Making a significant promise on January 1, and then doing your absolute very best to stick to it, dates back not just centuries, but thousands of years. And, no doubt, the people of that era had just about as many problems sticking to their plans as we do today. Times and technology might change, but the Human Race doesn't! With that said, let's take a good look at how the phenomenon began.

The earliest recorded examples of New Year's Resolutions date back to around 2,000 BC. The location: ancient Babylonia, where the people were absolutely dominated by beliefs in matters magical, supernatural and mystical. As a result, they very often made resolutions not just to help themselves, but also to appease their gods, who could be as rewarding as they could deadly. So, a great deal of thought on the part of the population went into determining the exact nature of those plans for the new year. For the Babylonians, this chiefly involved making sure that any borrowed farming equipment was returned to its rightful owner. Not just because it was the correct thing to do, but, because it was perceived that such an action would be viewed in approving fashion by the gods, and would, as a consequence, lead to a bountiful harvest in the year ahead. Not unlike washing the car for your dad when you're a kid, so that you'll get some pocket-money!

An entire empire makes a promise

The origins behind New Year's resolutions
A Roman influence (Medioimages/Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Moving on from Babylonia, it's time to take a trip to the heart of ancient Rome. That's right, the people of the mightiest empire of all recognised the importance of trying to make the new year a great one, even if that meant changing a few things in the process. For the Romans, that may have involved cutting back on throwing Christians to the lions, or holding less wild orgies. Or, maybe, the resolution was to increase the entertainment! Whatever the answer, it's to one of the most revered gods of the Roman Empire that we have to now turn.

Janus was the legendary dual-faced god of the Roman Empire who epitomised, and influenced, two things that absolutely define our modern day traditions of making resolutions. Namely, a change from one time period to another, and the importance of recognising new beginnings and goals. Deeply influenced by the folklore and mythology surrounding Janus (after who the month of January is named), the Romans firmly believed that the new year should be treated with deep respect, since how one began the year would define the way in which it would play out. So, one resolution that each and every Roman pledged on January 1 was to be friendly, cheery and helpful to their fellow countrymen - very often by sharing bountiful amounts of food, usually in the form of fruit. In other words, resolving to be a better neighbour would influence the positive nature of the year ahead.

Into the modern era

The origins behind New Year's resolutions
Puritans and a pope (Jupiterimages/ Images)

By the turn of the Middle Ages, the Roman Empire was long gone. The Christian church did all it could to stamp out the influence that the likes of Julius Caesar had on the time at which - and how - the new year should be celebrated. The Romans favoured January 1, whereas there were those in the church of the Middle Ages who preferred December 25. Back then, not only did this latter date mark the birth of Jesus Christ, but - unlike today - it was seen by many as the time to bring in a new era.

In the 1500s, however, Pope Gregory XIII brought to the world what is known as the Gregorian Calendar, and January 1 eventually - and yet again - became the date on which the start of a new year was celebrated. The result of turning back traditions to match the views of Caesar and co. was that the old Roman custom of making a resolution on January 1 began to surface once more. Further influence came from the Puritans, English protestants of the 16th Century, some of who left their mark in both Holland and the United States. Hardly known for their partying ways, the Puritans insisted that their followers avoided having a good time as the new year began. Instead, they demanded that much time should be spent finding ways to make the new year better than the last. Thus, from the days of ancient Babylonia to Rome, and from a long-dead pope to the Puritans, now you know why January 1 is the day on which to pledge you'll cut out all those bad habits!

Tips and warnings

  • Plan your resolutions in order of priority. Give yourself realistic goals. Remember that achieving your resolutions will be a positive thing. If you fall of the wagon, get back on it. Stick to your guns!

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