Past notes: new year’s res­o­lu­tions

BBC History Magazine - - Contents -

When were new year’s res­o­lu­tions first made?

At least 4,000 years ago, it seems. Dur­ing the fes­ti­val that marked the start of their new year (which be­gan with the plant­ing of their crops in March), Baby­lo­ni­ans would seek to keep on the right side of their gods by promis­ing to re­turn things that they’d bor­rowed. A sim­i­lar prac­tice took place in Rome fol­low­ing Cae­sar’s re­or­gan­i­sa­tion of the cal­en­dar. Ro­mans would make sac­ri­fices to Janus – the two-faced god who looked back to the past and for­ward to the fu­ture – to­gether with prom­ises of good con­duct in the com­ing year.

How did res­o­lu­tions be­come linked with self-im­prove­ment?

This, too, was ini­tially re­li­gious in in­spi­ra­tion. The 17th-cen­tury ad­ven­turer and re­li­gious writer Lady Anne Halkett wrote in her di­ary for 2 Jan­uary 1671 a se­ries of vows un­der the head­ing ‘res­o­lu­tions’. In the 1720s the lead­ing New Eng­land the­olo­gian Jonathan Ed­wards had com­piled no fewer than 70 res­o­lu­tions, in­clud­ing prom­ises to live soberly, re­frain from overeat­ing and to waste no time. In 1740 John Wes­ley, the founder of Method­ism, wanted a spir­i­tual al­ter­na­tive to the boozy carous­ing that even then char­ac­terised many peo­ple’s new year cel­e­bra­tions. He cre­ated the covenant re­newal ser­vice, a mix­ture of hymns, prayers and prom­ises, which was nor­mally held on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day.

When did they be­come sec­u­lar? When was the ac­tual term ‘new year’s res­o­lu­tion’ first used?

Its first known use was in a rather mis­chievous ar­ti­cle in a Bos­ton news­pa­per of 1 Jan­uary 1813. This sug­gested that, in prepa­ra­tion for their im­proved lives in Jan­uary, peo­ple had been rack­ing up the sins in De­cem­ber.

The clock strikes mid­night in this Happy New Year post­card from c1910

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