As the godforsaken year of 2020 draws to an end and Earth finishes a rather hellish journey around the sun, ‘tis the season for resolutions again. There shall be a chorus across the globe to shun the booze and the kilos and embrace early mornings and adequate hydration, among other vows. While it may be rather cathartic to plan these resolutions in response to the Christmas-y indulgences, and maybe the Julian Calendar stuck the new year in the dead of winter, but the tradition of these resolutions seemingly predates both.
The first New Year resolutions date back to ancient Babylon, more than 4,000 years ago. During Akitu, a 12-day New Year celebration to mark the new agrarian season, the Babylonians are said to have introduced the custom to gain the favor of the gods.
The ancient Babylonians would plant crops during the Akitu festival, pledge their loyalty to the reigning ruler or coronate a new one, and make vows to the gods to clear their debts and return what they have borrowed, especially farming tools. They claimed that the gods would look favourably upon them for the year ahead if they held their word, or bring down their wrath in case the vows were broken.
The Babylonian New Year was adopted, as was the custom of resolutions, by the ancient Romans. Originally, the Roman year had ten months, beginning around the spring equinox in March, plus a further 60-odd winter days that were not included in the named months. Two additional months were added around 700BC, but it was not until 46BC, when a reformed calendar was proposed by Julius Caesar, that January was officially established as the beginning of the year. It marked a change in calendar focus from agrarian cycles to civil rotations, as this was the date on which the newly elected consuls of the city started their tenure.
January was named after the two-faced Roman deity, Janus, who looks forward to contemplation and resolution for new beginnings as well as backwards. The Romans gave Janus sacrifices and made promises to be exemplary citizens in the days to come.
The Christian Way
Christians weren’t particularly fans of the pagan legacy of the Romans, and sought to celebrate the New Year on days that had religious significance, like Christmas. There was also a makeover of the resolution being made, and most people vowed to stay true and devout to a set of religious values. Another trendy oath back then was the Peacock Vow that was taken by the medieval knights, in which they committed themselves to be pillars of chivalry. Maybe the vows being made differed, but the essence behind remained the same- morality.
The resolutions of today
By the 17th century, New Year’s resolutions seemed to be popular. In 1671, Anne Halkett, a Scottish New Year writer, wrote a diary entry containing many promises such as and named the entry “Resolutions”.
The first recorded use of the word ‘New Year Resolution’ was published in a Boston newspaper in 1813-
By this time, resolutions had somewhat lost some of the religious hubbub around it. There were plenty of jokes made on the whole point of keeping (or not keeping) them.
The resolutions of today lean more towards becoming a better person in whatever aspect and not so much as to please a deity. The tradition’s emphasis is on self-improvement, with individuals taking time to reflect on their objectives. Maybe, in some mysterious way, fear of divine wrath millenia ago at least gives us the thought of being better- now how we actually do that is an article for another day.
-Team Art Thou Cultured