The History of New Year’s Resolutions

Hindsight is 20/20, so let's begin 2020 by taking a look back at one of our favorite New Year's articles. If you're planning to make a New Year's resolution for 2020, here's some context behind the tradition—and maybe some inspiration too. If resolutions have been around for over 4,000 years, can you make yours last more than a couple of months?

Now that 2018 is here, you may be thinking about your own history of making New Year’s resolutions—promises to exercise more often, or to study more regularly. Maybe you lived up to these promises in 2017, or maybe you didn’t. But have you ever wondered why we make New Year’s resolutions in the first place? Consider the history that surrounds this annual tradition:

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The origins of the New Year’s resolution

You may be surprised to learn that the core concept behind New Year’s resolutions has existed for at least 4,000 years. The ancient Babylonians celebrated the new year with Akitu, a festival that included promises to the gods to repay debts or return items they borrowed. It took place in March, not January, because the new year was tied to the planting of spring crops. However, the idea of starting the year off on the right foot is an echo of our modern tradition.

New Year’s resolutions and the Romans

January 1 was decreed the start of the new year by Julius Caesar in ancient Roman times, and the Romans also promised good behavior in the coming year. This practice was linked to the Roman god Janus, who was associated with beginnings, endings, doorways, and transitions. The month of January was named after him, and he was represented as a two-faced god who looked back to the past year and ahead to the next.

New Year’s resolutions and watch night services

Another historic tradition related to New Year’s resolutions is the watch night service—a Christian church service typically held on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist faith, began the tradition of holding these services in the 1700s, in the belief that Methodists should reaffirm their covenant with God each year. Watch night services included prayers, song, and self-reflection, and similar services are still held today.

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The terminology of New Year’s resolutions

As discussed above, the concept of promising better behavior in a new year has existed for centuries, but the current terminology is a more recent development. The first recorded use of the phrase “new year resolutions” was in a newspaper article from 1813, according to Merriam-Webster. The article noted that there are many people “accustomed to receive injunctions of new year resolutions, who will sin all the month of December, with a serious determination of beginning the new year with new resolutions and new behaviour...” (Sound familiar?) By this point, it’s clear that the practice of these annual promises was becoming common enough that people would understand the above reference.

Since then, the practice has only become more popular. A recent poll suggests roughly 44% of Americans plan to make changes in 2018. Although few people seem to completely succeed in the long term with their New Year’s resolutions, about two-thirds of those who made a 2017 resolution said they kept at least part of their promise.

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Now that you know the story behind New Year’s resolutions, perhaps you will be inspired to help keep this tradition alive and to prevent your own resolutions from fading into history.


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