home Features New Year, Old Traditions; a brief timeline of ‘New Year’s Resolutions’

New Year, Old Traditions; a brief timeline of ‘New Year’s Resolutions’

New Year, new semester, new you… right? Everyone is clamouring to squeeze into the overpacked gym because for the 5th year in a row, they’re absolutely going to get rid of the winter chub before March, sales of cigarettes are dropping as quick as sales of travel books rise, and the avalanche of messages from people you don’t speak to anymore (purposely or otherwise) appear in your inbox; “OMG, it’s been ages! Let’s meet up!” Yeah, sure…

The most common New Year’s resolutions, as you can guess from above, are things like losing weight, get fit, live more healthily and spend more time with family and friends. However, it’s mid-late January, and you know as well as I do that most New Year’s resolutions have fallen apart by now. So instead of getting on a soapbox and preaching about how you can maintain your New Year’s resolutions, I thought it might be more interesting to delve in the history behind this tradition.

Fádo Fádo…..specifically 4000 years ago, the Babylonians kicked off New Year’s Resolutions with a 12 day festival extravaganza, Akitu, at the start of the year. Their year began at the end of March/start of April in our calendar. Akitu was to celebrate the sowing of the barley, and also paid tribute to Marduk, the patron god of Babylon, and his success in war. A new king was crowned, or the old king shed his finery and went before the gods to reaffirm his devotion in a hardcore ceremony where he had to be slapped so hard his eyes watered. (He promised that he hadn’t deliberately sinned against the gods, and then got a wallop for unintentionally sinning anyway. There’s no winning, is there?) The people promised the gods to repay their debts and return anything they had borrowed and if they kept their word the gods would grant them favour for the coming year. The very first New Year’s Resolutions were born.

From one great fallen empire to another, we shoot forward to the Romans, who also contributed to New Year’s traditions. Like the Babylonians, the Roman calendar started in March, but the year was changed to begin in January 1st at some point, probably around 300 BC, and this was carried forward to Julius Caesar’s calendar. There are varying theories, one being that military generals/commanders were sworn in on the first day of the year. As the best time for military campaigns was spring/summer, March was too late in the year to swear people into their new positions, so New Year’s was moved to January, or ‘Ianuarius’. Another, more flowery explanation is March was named for Mars, the god of war. As the Romans progressed and became less war-like (aka; as they beat down those around them to annex every country touching the Mediterranean Sea), they changed the start of the year to January, named for Juno, sister/wife of chief god Jupiter, but linked to Janus, the god of beginnings and transitions.

Disregarding why they changed it, the year starting in January leads us to the next stepping stone towards modern day resolutions; Janus was the two faced god, with one face looking towards the past and one towards the future. The first feast of the year was thrown in his honour, where Romans made sacrifices and promised to behave well for the next year.

Moving westward again, we end up in Medieval England, around the time of Richard the Second (late 1300’s), who also known as Richard of Bordeaux. His father, Edward the Black Prince, had a penchant for chivalry (not that it stopped him burning down entire villages when he felt like it). Although Edward died when he was very young, Richard seems to have taken this dedication to chivalry on board, with the “Vow of the Peacock.” In these days, Christmas really was a 12 day affair, with feasts on every day until the 6th of January. On the last day of the Christmas, a peacock would be brought out, not by a servant, but by the highest ranking Lady present. Sometimes the peacocks were alive, and usually they had already been plucked, skinned, roasted and redressed in their feathers, which were considered the height of fashion and beauty for the time. A rag was dipped in alcohol and stuffed in its gold-leafed beak then set alight. One by one, each knight present would come forward and lay their hand on the bird, then pledge themselves to the ideals of chivalry for the next year in front of the whole court. Once it had been presented to every knight in turn, the peacock would be served.

Staying in England, we come to 1740, when John Wesley introduced the concept of watchnight services. Wesley was the founder of the Methodist church, and these services, then sometimes referred to as Covenant Renewal Services, were held late at night. They were supposed to be a wholesome alternative to partying the night away on Christmas Eve and New Year’s eve, ending after midnight. They also gave believers a chance to renew their covenant with God. Modern day Methodists still hold watchnight services on New Year’s, with singing, spontaneous testimonials and scripture readings.

These days, the idea of New Year’s resolutions is largely a secular concept, and one that stretches around the world. I think it’s a normal thought to have at this time of year, to look back on our histories with nostalgia, to look forward to our futures with hope and determination. For some, the changing of dates is an arbitrary concept, but I think many of us have deadlines and milestones we want to achieve by certain times/ages, and nothing reminds us of how quickly time flies like the beginning of a New Year.

The statistics behind New Year’s resolutions vary wildly, and aren’t exactly encouraging, with an 8-12% success rate. However, when surveyed, most people said that the reason they failed is because they set their goals too high. Maybe the key to success isn’t to be the hare, but to be the tortoise; slow and steady wins the race, after all.

To those who have made themselves promises towards self-improvement, I wish you all the success in the world.