Are you planning to exercise more or eat healthier this coming year? Maybe you are going to try and make a few more cooking classes or spend more time with family? Maybe you want to travel? Whatever the case may be, if you are making New Year’s resolution you are participating in a tradition that goes back thousands of years. Ancient people practiced New Year’s resolutions, and while their oaths were external, they were more internally focused. A little more than 4,000 years ago, the ancient Babylonians celebrated the New Year, not in January, but in March, when the spring harvest came in. The festival was called Akitu, and it lasted more than a night, it lasted 12 days. An important factor of Akitu was the crowning of a new king, or the reaffirmation of loyalty to an old king, if he was still on the throne. Special rituals also affirmed humanity’s covenant and devotion to their gods; as far as the Babylonians knew, their continued worship was what kept them alive and procreating.
Centuries after the Babylonians, the ancient Romans had very similar traditions to bring in their own New Year which also was in March. In Rome’s early days, the city’s magistrates terms were defined by the date of the New Year. On March 1st, the old magistrates would affirm before the Roman Senate that they had performed their duties in accordance with the laws of Rome. Then they would be sworn into office. After Rome became an empire, New Year’s Day became a time for the city leaders and soldiers to also swear an oath of loyalty to the Emperor. Just like the Babylonians, Romans celebrated the New Year in March, but at some point that changed and it became January 1st. Rome was a military society and the empire expanded, the generals had to travel longer distances and prime battle season was in the Spring, which probably made March 1st as a swear in date, too late.
So along with that, and as the Romans became less violent and warlike, the switch from March 1st which is during a month associated with Mars, the God of War, to January which is associated with Janus, the god of home and hearth seemed more…appropriate. The first half of New Year’s Day in Rome would have been all about public ceremonies such as the oath taking, and temple sacrifices and the second half was for social activities. Citizens would exchange gifts of honey, pears, and other “sweets” in order to have a “sweet New Year.”
So what about today’s traditions?
Well, there is no direct link form ancient Rome to modern New Year’s resolutions, but the desire to start a new, fresh, year shows up time and time again in the history of Western civilization. For instance, in 1740, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, invented a new type of church service. The service was called Covenant Renewal Services or watch night services, which were held during the Christmas and New Year’s season as an alternative to holiday partying. Worshippers sing, pray, reflect on the year and renew their covenant with God.
New Year’s Resolutions aren’t Cool Anymore
New Year’s resolutions have become a secular tradition and most Americans who make them now focus on self-improvement and less on God per say. The US government even has a website for those looking for tips on how to achieve some of the most common New Year’s resolutions which are to: stop smoking, lose weight, volunteer more, eat better, or get out of debt and save money. Still, New Year’s resolutions might be falling out of favor. A poll done by CBS news in 2013, has found that 68% of Americans don’t even make New Year’s resolutions. Two years ago, that number was 58%. People under the age of 30 are more likely than older people to make resolutions and only half of resolutions are actually kept.