The New Year’s tradition of making promises for the coming year; what we’d like to achieve, places we’d like to go, things we’d like to do or see. Making New Year’s resolutions remains a popular custom today, and is a tradition that dates back a very long way. In fact, the first recorded New Year’s resolutions were made over 4000 years ago. So how did this tradition start, and why do so many people continue it?
1. Ancient Babylonians
The ancient Babylonians are said to have started the tradition during Akitu, their 12-day festival which celebrated New Year. During Akitu, ancient Babylonians planted crops, crowned a new king or pledged loyalty to the reigning king, and made promises to the gods that they would pay their debts and return any borrowed items. Ancient Babylonians believed that if they kept their word, the gods would look favourably on them for the coming year, however if they broke their promises the gods would be displeased.
2. Ancient Rome
New Year’s resolutions were also made in ancient Rome. In 46 B.C. Emperor Julius Caesar introduced a new calendar which used January 1st as the start of the new year. This date honoured Janus, a two-faced god who symbolically looked back into the previous year and forwards into the new year. The Romans offered sacrifices to Janus and made promises of good behaviour for the year ahead, similar to those of the ancient Babylonians.
3. Middle Ages
The idea of New Year’s resolutions also continued into the Middle Ages when knights renewed their vows to chivalry. During a ‘Peacock Vow’ ceremony that took place at the end of each year, knights placed their hands on a live or roasted peacock and made a resolution to maintain their knighthood values for the coming year.
4. 17th, 18th and 19th centuries
There is also evidence that New Year’s resolutions were common in the 17th century as there are diary entries, such as that of Scottish writer Anne Halkett, that contain ‘resolutions’, or a list of promises regarding their behaviour for the coming year. Throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries the custom of New Year’s resolutions continued and became increasingly popular, to the point that by the 19th century the jokes that we now have today about people’s inability to keep their resolutions had begun.
5. Modern New Year’s resolutions
Nowadays, the association between New Year’s resolutions and promises to gods has largely disappeared, and it has become a non-religious cultural phenomenon. However, the idea behind our resolutions remains the same; promises of self-improvement, goals we aim to achieve or journeys we wish to fulfil. The modern day indulgences of many people around the Christmas period have also led to many health related resolutions and the intention of ending of bad habits. Despite the gradual changes to the tradition throughout history, the symbology behind New Year’s resolutions remains the same; to bit farewell to the previous year, wipe the slate clean and start fresh for the New Year.