The History of the New Year’s Resolution

2014_Piers_Festival_Fireworks_(12152711515)We surely are all familiar with New Year’s resolutions. Many of us start the incoming year with promises to do or stop doing something. Generally these are regarding making better use of inherent talents, improving our health or committing charitable acts such as helping our neighbours. The top ten resolutions involve searching for a new job or a better paid one, getting fit, losing weight, stop drinking or smoking or spending more time with friends and family.

And if we are honest most of us fail to keep these. Within a few weeks most of us run out of motivation. 88% of us fail, with more women than men failing to stick with it. Whole industries such as the leisure and fitness industry thrive on our attempts to better ourselves with luring offers in gyms starting every January. Apparently the reason why we fail is because we have no real strategy how to achieve our goals other than the wish to succeed.

But whilst we know what they are, where do New Year’s resolutions stem from? The origins go back some 4000 years. The ancient Babylonians made promises to their gods; they would return borrowed objects and pay their debts. This would ensure their good luck for the following year. New Year’s resolutions were taken seriously so as to not fail the gods incurring bad luck. Similarly the Romans made commitments to the pagan god Janus, giving our January its name. They made such resolutions with a moral flavour until Christianity was adopted as the official religion. Then the resolutions were replaced by fasting and prayers. During the medieval times knights renewed their commitment of chivalry. In the 17th Century Puritans encouraged their children to reflect on the year past and contemplate years to come. An American puritan Theologist, Jonathan Edwards, spent two years compiling 70 resolutions.

Whilst the date differed originally with the year starting during March until more modern times, the custom of reflection and self bettering remains the same. But the custom is not only tied to the New Year. There are other times of fasting, reflection and atonement, with lent for the Christians or Ramadan for the Muslims. Within Judaism’s New Year, through the High Holidays and culminating in Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), it is custom to reflect upon one’s wrongdoings over the year and both seek and offer forgiveness.

So even if we do not succeed with our good intentions, we know we are not alone. Thousands of people have been there before, so consider yourself in good company! Happy New Year!


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