So it comes to January 1st and after the joys of stuffing your face until you can hardly move on
Christmas Day comes the realisation that you’ve run out of food and the shops aren’t open. You also have to decide in a vague semblance of an attempt to better your life, what resolutions you are going to make and follow for a month at the most. What might not be going through your head as you vow never to eat chocolate ever again, or at least until February, or as you become a vegetarian, is that the tradition of New Year's Resolutions stretches back further than you think.
The first group of people regarded as being the first to make New Year’s resolutions are the ancient Babylonians, over 4,000 years ago. They were also the first to hold recorded celebrations in honour of the New Year, although they didn’t start their year in January, rather in mid-March when they started to plant their crops. During a massive, and probably excruciatingly tedious, 12 day long religious festival called Akitu, the ancient Babylonians crowned a new king, or reaffirmed their loyalty to the reigning king (which would have been a much nicer way of choosing the next President of America). They would also make promises to their pagan gods to pay their debts and return any objects they had borrowed. These promises would become the forerunners of our New Year’s resolutions. If the ancient Babylonians kept to their word, the pagan gods would bestow favour on them for the coming year, if they didn’t then they would fall out of the gods’ favour- which is something nobody wanted to do.
A similar practice occurred in ancient Rome after the emperor Julius Caesar, that egotistical rascal, tinkered with the calendar, adding a month named after himself (July) and establishing January 1st as the beginning of the new year in circa 46 B.C., which was a bad thing to do, someone should totally stab Caesar. January, named after the Roman god Janus who was the god of doorways and arches, oh and also had two faces, had special significance for the Romans. They believed that Janus symbolically looked backwards into the previous year and also ahead into the future, and therefore the Romans offered sacrifices to the deity and made promises of good conduct for the coming year, whether that was achieved or not is another matter, they were Romans after all.
For early Christians, the first day of the new year became the traditional occasion for thinking about your mistakes and resolving to do and be better in the future, in order to get that warm fuzzy feeling inside. In 1740, the English clergyman John Wesley, who was the 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 the fun pastimes of reading from Scriptures and singing hymns, and it served as a spiritual alternative to the raucous celebrations that are normally held to celebrate the coming of the New Year. The tradition is now popular with evangelical Protestant churches, especially the African-American denominations and congregations.
Despite the tradition being grounded in religious roots, today’s resolutions are a mostly secular practice. Instead of making promises to the gods, people today tend to be selfish and make resolutions in the guise of bettering themselves, although most people slip back into old habits very quickly after they realise just how hard giving up chocolate actually is. According to recent research, roughly half of Americans say they make New Year’s resolutions, only 8% of them are successful in achieving their goals (although this is Americans we’re talking about, they’re not exactly truthful with polls). This, quite frankly, dismal record won’t stop us from making resolutions any time soon however. We have had about 4,000 years of practice after all.