Past notes: new year’s resolutions
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