Ancient History of New Year’s Resolutions

Would threat of divine retribution motivate you to keep your resolutions?
By April Holloway, www.ancient-origins.net
January 14, 2015 Updated: December 31, 2014

A New Year’s resolution is a tradition, most common in the West but found around the world, in which a person makes a promise on New Year’s Eve to make certain changes or self-improvements in the year ahead. It is believed that the Babylonians were the first to make New Year’s resolutions around 4,000 years ago, and people all over the world have been breaking them ever since!

It is believed that the Babylonians were the first to make New Year’s resolutions around 4,000 years ago.

The ancient Babylonians made promises to their gods at the start of each year, which began in mid-March, that they would return borrowed objects and pay their debts. March was a logical time period for the New Year because spring begins and crops are planted.  But the Babylonians had a greater motivation to stick to their promises than we have today, because keeping their promises meant their gods would bestow grace on them throughout the course of the following 12 months, and breaking their promises would put them out of favor with the gods.

The practice carried over into Roman times with worshipers offering resolutions of good conduct to the two-faced deity named Janus, the god of beginnings and endings.

The practice carried over into Roman times with worshipers offering resolutions of good conduct to the two-faced deity named Janus, the god of beginnings and endings, who looks backward into the old year and forward into the new.  In the Medieval era, knights took the “peacock vow” (les voeux du paon) at the end of the year to re-affirm their commitment to chivalry, while early Christians believed the first day of the new year should be spent reflecting on past mistakes and resolving to improve oneself.  

At watchnight services, many Christians prepare for the year ahead by praying and making these resolutions. There are other religious parallels to this tradition. During Judaism’s New Year, Rosh Hashanah, through the High Holidays and culminating in Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), one is to reflect upon one’s wrongdoings over the year and both seek and offer forgiveness. 

The concept, regardless of creed, is to reflect upon self-improvement annually. Today, the only thing that has changed (for some) is that, rather than making promises to gods, we make promises to ourselves. And since we cannot possibly rain thunder and lightning on ourselves as punishment for not keeping our promises, it need not surprise us that sooner or later we fail in staying true to our words. 

A 2007 study by Richard Wiseman from the University of Bristol involving 3,000 people showed that 88 percent of those who set New Year resolutions failed, despite the fact that 52 percent of the study’s participants were confident of success at the beginning.  

But all is not lost, the study also showed that men could achieve their goal 22 percent more often when they engaged in goal setting, while women succeeded 10 percent more when they made their goals public and got support from their friends. 

Republished with permission. Read the original at Ancient Origins

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