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A notepad listing various new year's resolutions

The history of new year’s resolutions


Most of us make a resolution or two as January arrives and while most of us probably don’t stick to them for more than a couple of weeks, it is a longstanding tradition that we don’t seem to want to part with. Whether you stick to your resolutions or not, it’s a quirky tradition that dates back thousands of years with serious symbolic meaning for some ancient civilisations. Let’s explore the history of the new year’s resolution.

Babylonian beginnings

The concept of the New Year’s resolution is believed to date back to Babylonian times, over 4000 years ago. The Babylonians were the first people on record known to celebrate the arrival of the New Year. Their New Year was in mid-March when they celebrated planting their crops. New Year was a 12-day religious festival, known as Akitu, and in this time the people would either crown a new king or reaffirm and profess their loyalty to the reigning king. The resolution element came in the form of a promise to the gods. Babylonian people would make promises to their gods to return borrowed items or pay outstanding debts. If they kept to their word their gods would then grant them a favour or luck in the coming year. If they did not stick to their promises they would fall out of favour with the gods.

The influence of Julius Caesar

After the Babylonians, the next recorded civilisation to show a similar interest in resolutions at the beginning of a New Year was the Romans. In 46 BCE Julius Caesar established January 1st as the beginning of the New Year. January is named after the Roman god Janus. Janus’ spirit was known to inhabit doorways and arches. Romans also believed Janus could look back into the previous year and forward into the future. With this in mind, they would offer sacrifices and promises to Janus for the coming year.

Early Christian resolutions

Early Christians followed the same tradition of using the New Year as a time to reflect on the past but also look forward. It was a chance to consider past mistakes and look for ways to amend and improve in the coming year. A core Christian tradition is also linked to New Year's resolutions. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, created the Covenant Renewal Service in 1740. The service became commonly known as watch night and was held on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. It included readings from Scriptures, hymns and a more sedate and religious alternative to the raucous celebrations commonly associated with New Year. Watch night was also an opportunity to make collective resolutions and faith-based resolutions.

Modern resolutions and annual traditions

Modern New Year’s Resolutions appear to date back to the 19th century. The first recorded use of the phrase “new year resolution” was found in a Boston newspaper in 1813 in the complete statement:

“And yet, I believe there are multitudes of people, accustomed to receive injunctions of new year resolutions, who will sin all the month of December, with a serious determination of beginning the new year with new resolutions and new behaviour, and with the full belief that they shall thus expiate and wipe away all their former faults.”

This is an example of the resolutions we observe to this day and for it to appear in print we can only guess it had been an observed tradition for some time. Other key traditions linked closely to your New Year’s resolutions include the Ball Drop in Times Square in New York. The first ball drop was in 1907 and millions of people watch the ball drop and use this moment to mark the beginning of their New Year’s Resolution.

Sticking to a resolution isn’t always easy and the sense of accomplishment can be massive. Understanding that your desire to find a new job or eat less junk food dates back to the ancient Babylonians is a fun fact to know and here are several more.

Top facts about new year’s resolutions

Let’s look at just four more interesting facts about New Year’s resolutions and their history:

1. Measurable goals = resolution success

A 2007 study at the University of Bristol found people achieved their goal 22% more often when they engaged in goal setting, where resolutions were made in terms of small measurable goals. Setting a specific goal such as “lose 1lb a week” was much more likely to lead to success than the more general “lose weight”.

2. 88% of new year’s resolutions fail

The same study mentioned above found of their 3000 participants, 88% did not keep their resolutions. It is a big commitment and many people feel enthusiastic at the beginning but when the going gets tough, their enthusiasm wanes.

3. Where you’re from influences your resolution

A 2013 Google Maps project called Zeitgeist delved a little deeper into who made what kinds of resolutions. They found health-related resolutions were a priority in the US and Egypt while Australian and Japanese resolution makers were looking for love. In India, career goals topped the resolution pile while in Russia, it was all about education.

4. 30% of us don’t resolve to do anything

New Year’s resolutions are a secular activity in the modern age. There is no risk of angering the gods or upsetting your community, so many of us simply don’t get involved. Research shows around 30-40% of people simply don’t make New Year’s resolutions at all.