How are you doing with the New Year’s resolutions you probably, like me and everyone else, made a few days ago? I’m told that making your resolutions public in some way, like telling your partner or friends, results in a much better success rate. But have you ever thought about why and when this very popular custom came into being? The story begins with the Babylonians around 4000 years ago.
The Babylonian New Year was celebrated in March with an 11-day festival linked to the coming of spring. During this time people made promises to the gods in the hope of good things in the coming year. The ancient Egyptians also held New Year celebrations linked to fertility each year during the spring flooding of the Nile. The idea of a new beginning as crops begin to grow is completely understandable as is the related promise to the gods to be a better person in exchange for a good harvest.
Julius Caesar changed this tradition by moving the first day of the year to January when it would relate to Janus the double headed god who looked back on the old year and forward to the one ahead. The custom of setting “New Year’s resolutions” began during this period when, after a period of feast and excess, they made such resolutions with a moral flavour: mostly to be good to others. But when the Roman Empire took on Christianity as its official state religion in the 4th century, these moral intentions were replaced by prayers and fasting.
Celebrating the New Year came in and out of fashion through the following centuries: the Puritans under Cromwell thought of it as a pagan tradition not worthy of a good Christian. They even disliked the pagan root of the word January and tried to change this month’s name to First Month. However, they retained the habit of resolutions and urged their children to skip the revelry and instead spend their time reflecting on the year past and contemplating the year to come, making a commitment to better employ their talents, treat their neighbours with charity, and avoid their habitual sins.
Today, the New Year, like that of Roman times, is a chance for us to look back on our year and make a new beginning, improving aspects of our life and instigating a clean-up of bad habits. Good luck, I know I’ll need it.