On the eve of December 31st and morning of January 1st, people celebrate the ending of a year and the beginning of a new one in the western world by drinking champagne, staying awake until the witching hour, kissing, lighting fireworks, and making New Year’s resolutions. The Earth has orbited the sun again and we have a chance for a fresh start.
This year it was pouring cats and dogs in Southern California, and all ideas of party dresses and bar hopping were soon abandoned in pursuit of staying in—chicken parmesan, Moscow mules, and a double-feature resulted. As I sat (slightly cynically) on the couch listening to the rain fall, removed from the bars and hub bub, the clanking of glasses, and the boisterous resolutions, my thoughts progressed from “I should make some resolutions…” to “What’s the big deal, really? Why do we make these promises that we may (or may not) follow through with in a few months? I could make a resolution any day of the year.”
Statistic Brain provided information about the top American New Year’s resolutions of 2015. From what I garner from other publications, they are in the ballpark of those of 2016 and 2017. The top resolution was: lose weight. This resolution is logical, considering the November and December celebrations that precede (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah) and the chilly indoor months. People tend to pack on a few pounds. This is followed by the infamous: get organized. Then: spend less and save more; enjoy life to the fullest; stay fit and healthy; learn something exciting; quit smoking; help others in their dreams; fall in love; and spend more time with family.
About 45% of Americans make resolutions, and 38% never make resolutions, leaving leeway for the “sort of, kind of” resolution people. 39% of people in their twenties achieve their resolutions each year, and 14% of people over the age of 50 achieve their resolutions each year. Six months into the new year, only 46% of Americans are still faithful to their resolutions.
The statistics cover what American resolutions are, but not why we make them.
We can trace the tradition of New Year’s resolutions back to the ancient Babylonians. 4,000 years ago, the Babylonians celebrated their New Year in March during the spring harvest with a 12 day festival called Akitu. They made resolutions and oaths during Akitu, promising loyalty to the king, and crowning a new king if necessary. Covenants and promises (resolutions) were made to the gods.
Romans originally celebrated the New Year in March, and magistrates would affirm their duties and loyalty before the Roman Senate. They would be sworn in on the “new year,” and make resolutions for the upcoming year. At some point around 300 B.C., the new year celebration shifted from March to January. People would bring each other sweets and fruits to celebrate the “sweet new year.”
In the Medieval era, knights would renew their “peacock vow” at the end of Christmas, re-expressing their commitment to chivalry and virtue.
Religions often have practices in which those who practice reflect on the waning year and make fresh resolutions. Many Christian faiths congregate on New Year’s Eve to ask forgiveness and make resolutions for the upcoming year. In Judaism, there are the High Holidays, with the holidays of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur, during which one reflects upon wrongdoings and asks for forgiveness. In Catholicism, there is Lent, and it is suggested that New Year’s resolutions developed in part due to Lenten sacrifices for betterment.
The craving for self-improvement and for a clean slate is a human yearning. History shows that people have been making promises and resolutions—everyone from the ancient Babylonians to courageous knights to holy leaders. In the New Year’s traditions of various peoples, during different months denoting the “new year,” it is nice to have the option to forget and forgive, and to make a new and positive goal. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man.” Cheers!