The reason why we have New Year’s resolutions might be older than you think
One of the most commonly known facts about New Year’s resolutions is that people rarely keep them. Whether it’s getting healthier, cutting back on screen time or saving money, resolutions are usually well-intentioned, and there’s an interesting reason why.
Some pinpoint the ancient Babylonians as the first to create some form of a resolution for a new year. When they lived 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, which we know as Iraq, their calendar started in mid-March, they celebrated Akitu, a 12-day affair celebrating “the rebirth of the natural world,” as the History Channel puts it on its website. They planted crops, crowned or maintained the current king and paid back debts. But they also promised the gods they’d maintain the progress made during Akitu: if they failed, the gods would get angry and rain misfortune down on their people. Hence, the first New Year’s resolutions.
Interestingly enough, the king was also forced to partake in an annual ritual humiliation at Akitu. He was to strip out of his royal garb and kneel before a statue of the god Marduk and swear to the god that he had led Babylon with honor. A priest would then hit the king. If the king cried, it meant Marduk was satisfied and had given the king his blessing to rule in his name. Some historians believe that this ritual was a political tactic used by the Babylonians to ensure his subjects respected and believed in divine power, making it easier for the regime to maintain respect and power.
Julius Caesar changed the calendar in the Roman Empire, now considered the standard, and established January 1 as the first date of the new year. January was named for Janus, the two-faced god of transitions, beginnings, endings, duality and doorways, and the ancient Romans made sacrifices and promises to him in hopes of a better new year.
Christians in the early modern era also created a form of New Year’s resolutions. Englishman and the founder of the Methodist church John Wesley created a special church service for New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day called the Covenant Renewal in 1740. Many Christian traditions including this service involved stating areas for positive change in the future. Knights in medieval times, who often served under Christian monarchs who placed a heavy emphasis on religion in both rule and daily life, swore to remain chivalrous and uphold the values of knighthood and the monarchy each year by placing their hand on a roasted peacock.
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Modern resolutions became common a century later, and the first recorded instance of the words “new year resolution” were printed in a Boston newspaper, and people have continued to make and attempt to keep them since. Fortunately for us, even old newspaper articles said that people usually don’t keep them, so don’t feel like you’re disappointing our ancestors if you fail.