Exploring the origins of New Year’s resolutions

For millennia, people around the world have commemorated the arrival of a new calendar year by adhering to various traditions. Once such tradition is making resolutions for the year ahead. Resolutions are promises to oneself geared around personal fulfillment and betterment.

Resolutions are widely practiced, but some people may not understand the origins of New Year’s resolutions and why they have become the norm.

Some historians tie the practice of making resolutions to the ancient Babylonians. More than 4,000 years ago, the Babylonians celebrated the New Year in March rather than January. The spring harvest was in March, and a festival called Akitu, which lasted 12 days, was celebrated. An important part of the festival was the crowning of a new king. Special rituals also affirmed a connection to the gods. The Babylonians made promises to the gods, which included vows to return borrowed objects and pay outstanding debts.

Resolutions can also be traced to ancient Rome. The Romans were instrumental in creating a more formal calendar, and the start of the new year was moved from March to January (January and February were added to the Roman calendar under the rule of Numa Pompilius). Julius Caesar wanted to honor January’s namesake, Janus, the Roman god of beginnings. Janus’ two faces enabled him to look back into the past and forward into the future. Sacrifices to Janus were made, and worshipers exchanged gifts with one another. A custom of setting resolutions began during this period as well, with Romans promising to be good to one another.

Eventually, these resolutions were funneled into prayers and fasting when Christianity was adopted by the Roman Empire. Other religious parallels include the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, which is a day of atonement and reflection as celebrants examine their wrongdoings and seek forgiveness and to behave better moving forward. Yom Kippur follows Rosh Hashanah, Judaism’s own new year.

Resolutions also may be loosely tied to Medieval times. During this time, knights took a “peacock vow” at the end of the Christmas season. Each year, these knights would reaffirm their commitment to chivalry.

Today New Year’s resolutions are largely a secular tradition, but they’re still connected to a desire to be a good person and put one’s best self forward.

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