The history of New Year’s resolutions

Published 9:02 pm Monday, January 8, 2024

It’s that time of year again when people make traditional New Year’s resolutions and hope that this time they can see them through. 

But have you ever wondered where this tradition comes from, and why we go through ritual every year? 

The ancient Babylonians are said to have been the first people to make New Year’s resolutions, some 4,000 years ago. They were also the first to hold recorded celebrations in honor of the new year, though for them the year began not in January but in mid-March when the crops were planted. 

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During a massive 12-day religious festival known as Akitu, Babylonians crowned a new king or reaffirmed their loyalty to the reigning king. 

The Babylonians also made promises to their gods to pay debts and return any objects they had borrowed. These promises could be considered the forerunners of our New Year’s resolutions. If the Babylonians kept to their word, they believed their gods would bestow favor on them for the coming year. If not, they would fall out of the gods’ favor.

A similar practice occurred in ancient Rome, after Emperor Julius Caesar tinkered with the calendar and established Jan. 1 as the beginning of the new year around 46 B.C. Named for Janus, the two-faced god whose spirit was believed to inhabit doorways and arches, January had special significance for the Romans. Believing that Janus symbolically looked backwards into the previous year and ahead into the future, the Romans offered sacrifices to the deity and made promises of good conduct for the coming year.

For early Christians, the first day of the new year became the traditional occasion for thinking about one’s past mistakes and resolving to do and be better in the future. In 1740, the English clergyman John Wesley, founder of Methodism, created the Covenant Renewal Service, most commonly held on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. Also known as watch night services, they included readings from Scriptures and hymn singing, and served as a spiritual alternative to the raucous celebrations normally held to celebrate the coming of the new year.

Today, most people make resolutions only for themselves, and focus purely on self-improvement. According to History, while as many as 45 percent of Americans say they usually make New Year’s resolutions, only eight percent are successful in achieving their goals. 

After 4,000 years of practice, perhaps one year we’ll get it right.