Self Care

The History Behind New Years Resolutions

The Bay's best newsletter for underground events & news

Resolutions, like wishes, like dreams, are ostensibly reachable, hopefully, feasible goals that many of us around the globe try desperately to hold ourselves to in the new year. Depending on your perspective of the whole thing, you may not even think about resolutions, maybe concerned solely about where you’re going to be when the ball drops and whose randoms tongue you’ll be fighting off with your teeth (or enjoying like a sloppy tango). Others may view it as a challenge, a struggle they’ve been dealing with personally or outwardly the past year that they want to defeat in the new one. Others – like me – see it as some kind of social burden, an intention sure to fail but godammit if we don’t hold ourselves to it till the end.

However you see it, I’ve always been curious about the origin of these New Year Resolutions. Where did they actually come from and why? Who brought these guilt-ridden, burdensome pressures on our contemporary society and why do we associate them with the transition into the new year? Lastly, if we are seeking to better ourselves in the new year, be it kicking carbs, reading more instead of Netflix binging, or learning how to unicycle uphill in nothing but a thong and leopard high heels, who are these potential accomplishments for?

When we want to be our best, are we looking into the mirror, at our phones, or out into the world at a sea of strangers’ faces?

The origin story of resolutions was born some 4000 years ago from the Babylonians based in central-southern Mesopotamia or modern-day Iraq.  Like many civilizations back then, they honored the Gods in a plethora of ways, mostly for good fortune in war, crops, their king, or material wealth. They also celebrated in mid-March rather than in January. Their resolutions – all promised to the Gods – very similar in respects to ours, ranging from re-paying their debts to returning any objects they had borrowed. That sounds a lot like getting out of credit card debt or getting back that dignity you maybe lost last New Years’ Eve. Rather than one, day of debaucherous shenanigans, they had a 12-day religious festival called Aktiv, simultaneously honoring their Gods while celebrating a new king or reaffirming their loyalty to an old one. 

Statue of Janus, Museum of Ferrara Cathedral in Ferrara, Italy

Then, came the Romans who under Julius Caesar, who decided to change the celebration of the new year in January instead of March in 46 B.C. Named after the god Janus, a two-faced god whose spirit inhabited doorways and arches, was a deity of both regret and remorse. She embodied ambition and drive to be better. She looked both backward at the past with humility to recognize their mistakes but also into the future, confident that they could do better.

Fast forward to 1740 and we have John Wesley, founder of Methodism who created Covenant Rehearsal Service. Mr. Wesley’s goal was “thinking back about one’s mistakes and resolving to do better in the future.” Not much difference that I can see. He really wanted to disconnect from the sinful libations and promiscuity connected with the holiday to more scriptures, singing, and hymns about Jesus and God. Today, evangelical protestant churches, spend New Years praying and making resolutions, far different than say your usual party goer jumping in and out of UBER’s and getting covered in confetti smooching strangers when the clock strikes midnight.

The biggest contrast for me was who the Babylonians and Romans made these resolutions to – the Gods, not themselves or the community at large. With social media actually doing the opposite of what Mr. Zuckerberg promised, making us more disconnected than not, it’s no surprise that most of the resolutions revolve around ourselves. That doesn’t necessarily mean that’s a bad thing though. About 45 % of people who make goals for themselves around this time of year want to improve their life in some way or another according to this study along with losing weight, saving money, and achieving goals. You could actually argue these “personal” resolutions, ones that deal with say stop drinking or gambling, both of which ranked at two and one percent in 2017, but really, working toward that goal has an effect on not just the one that quits but the people it affects as well. 

No one, at least from any polls I could find, was committing themselves to a year of achieving a goal for “the Gods” because, in more ways than one, we ourselves have become our own Gods. I could make a leap and assume that some resolutions are made to honor say the Christian, Muslim, or Judean God’s seeing that right now the population 70.6% Christian, 1.9% Jewish, 0.9% Muslim, and 0.7% Buddhist to name a few of the major ones, but I don’t officially know. The Pew Religious Landscape survey reported that as of 2014, 22.8% of the U.S. population is religiously unaffiliated, atheists made up 3.1% and agnostics made up 4% of the U.S. population.

If there is a correlation between who is making more resolutions contingent on what religion they practice and who, in the end, actually follows through with them throughout the year, I’d love to see it.

Today, I see little difference in what the Babylonians and Romans were wanting for themselves and what we strive for in modern society. Human beings, whether we are honoring a variety of Gods, one, or none at all, are always striving to better themselves in some way or another. In the end, does it matter who the resolution is for, either for the Gods or ourselves, if in the end, we are better for it if we truly to stick with it? Yet, according to the University of Scranton, “Just 8 percent of people achieve their New Year’s goals, while around 80 percent fail to keep their New Year’s resolutions, says US clinical psychologist Joseph Luciani.” Hopefully, in this next year with a coming election, the ongoing effects of climate change, and our diverse set of national conversations, we can tap into that eternal quality of the betterment of humanity as a unified whole because goddamn…do we need that more than ever.

Previous post

The New York Times Is Trolling SF and California Again and it's Garbage

Next post

Rocky Horror’s 45th Birthday And Other Weird January Films

Mitchell Duran

Mitchell Duran

Mitchell Duran is a freelance writer of fiction and non-fiction. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Winner of the ClarkGrossman and Wilner Award in Short Fiction, his work has been featured in Drunk Monkeys, The Millions, Music in SF and more. He survives in San Francisco.