This new year, as every year, millions of people will have made resolutions promising improvements in their lives. Alcohol will have been forsworn, exercise embraced, hobbies sought. But though it may make sense to respond to the indulgences of Christmas with catharsis, the tradition of new-year resolutions is far older than the establishment of the Christian festival or even the placing of the new year in the middle of winter.
The Babylonians were the first civilization to leave records of new-year festivities, some 4,000 years ago. Their years were linked to agricultural seasons, with each beginning around the spring equinox. A 12-day festival to celebrate the renewal of life, known as Akitu, marked the beginning of the agrarian year. During Akitu people keen to curry favour with the gods would promise to repay their debts and to return borrowed objects. In a similar vein the ancient Egyptians would make sacrifices to Hapi, the god of the Nile, at the beginning of their year in July, a time when the Nile’s annual flood would usher in a particularly fertile period. In return for sacrifice and worship they might request good fortune, rich harvests and military successes.
The Romans continued the habit, but also changed the date. The Roman year originally had ten months, starting in March around the spring equinox, plus another 60-odd winter days that were not included in the named months. Around 700BC, two more months were added, but it was not until 46BC, when Julius Caesar proposed a reformed calendar, that January was officially established as the beginning of the year. Since this was the date on which the city’s newly elected consuls began their tenure, it marked a shift in calendric emphasis from agrarian cycles to civil rotations. Roman new-year festivities included the worship of Janus, the god of beginnings and endings, after whom the month of January is named. But their pagan legacy annoyed Christians, and in medieval Europe some attempts were made to celebrate the new year on dates of religious significance, such as Christmas, or the Feast of the Annunciation in March. Resolutions also changed. Prayer vigils and confessions were used to pledge allegiance to a set of religious values. At the end of the Christmas feasts, some knights were said to have taken an oath known as “The Vow of the Peacock”, in which they placed their hands on a peacock (a bird considered noble) in order to renew their commitment to chivalry. This moral flavour to the pledges persisted. A 17th-century Scotswoman wrote in her diary of taking Biblical verses as starting points for resolutions (“I will not offend anymore”).
By the time the phrase “new-year resolutions” first appeared, in a Boston newspaper in 1813, the pledges were losing their religious gravitas. An article published a few years earlier in Walker’s Hibernian Magazine, or, Compendium of Entertaining Knowledge, an Irish publication, satirises the practice. It states that physicians had solemnly pledged to “be very moderate in their fees” and statesmen to “have no other object in view than the good of their country”. Yet the making of unrealistic pledges has remained a tradition. According to polls, around half the population of Britain and America now make resolutions—though fewer than 10% keep them. Fear of divine retribution might have been a useful thing.