New Year's Resolutions' Weird History
When you think about it, it's pretty weird that so many of us use the idea of the new year both to make terrible drunken mistakes and also decide to become better people. Not just because it's completely arbitrary to begin the year on January 1 at all, which we've talked about before, but because the first day of the year is a fairly arbitrary day to overhaul your life. When did we start doing this? And why, dear god, why did we start doing it on Annual Hangover Day? For the most part, you can blame those ancient Babylonian bastards.
Ancient Babylonians Gambled With The Gods
You've heard of the 12 days of Christmas, now get ready for the 12 days of New Year's! Don't worry, the ancient Babylonian festival of Akitu didn't run into Christmas, as it took another good 4,000 years for Jesus to be born. Also, because the Babylonian year began in March-ish, since that's when the plants started coming back. Honestly, it made a lot more sense.
Akitu wasn't 12 days of modern New Year's Eve celebrations that left everyone begging to stop partying. Babylonians came to Akitu to do two things: Crown a new king (or renew their allegiance to the old one) and pinkie-promise the gods that, by the next year, they would pay off the debts they'd amassed and return stuff they'd borrowed in the last one. This wasn't just some half-hearted agreement where you freeze your credit card in a block of ice and then thaw it out by January 5, though. The ancient Babylonians believed that fulfilling or breaking these promises affected their standings with the gods, so unless you wanted them to smite you, you gave Balthazar his damn spear back. How's that for motivation?
Romans Sacrificed Rams To The God Of Doorways
A millennium or two later, Julius Caesar exercised his imperial powers of controlling time. He added some new months to the calendar and declaring the first of January, named after the god Janus, the start of the year. Janus was notable in ancient Rome mostly for appearing above doorways because, much like your mom, he had eyes in the back of his head, so he could see out both sides of the door.
He was also said to see both back into the last year and forward into the new one. If there's anything Romans loved more than their own piss, it's symbolism. Their new year celebrations, then, mostly involved assuring Janus they'd be super good in exchange for his favor, much like the Babylonians. Janus seems to have been a bit of a hungrier god, though, because he also apparently required a variety of offerings and sacrifices, including that of a ram on January 9. Once people had gotten their oath-swearing and livestock-slaughtering out of the way, they got down, throwing parties and bringing each other treats for a "sweet new year," which seems a bit backwards. These days, we get drunk and gorge ourselves before we promise to give it all up.
Medieval People Went To Church And Swore On Peacocks
Ever since those ancient weirdos started signing spiritual contracts, just about every Western civilization has looked to the new year as a time for improvement, though it was usually more of an "I sure hope this famine ends" type of thing versus "I am going to find out what green juice is." What you wished for largely depended on exactly which plague, natural disaster, or political upheaval was messing your shit up at the time. It wasn't always religious, but it often was: The Jewish high holidays are all about repentance and atonement, and Christian watch night or covenant renewal services offer a chance to, well, renew your covenant with God at the new year, although that one only dates back to 1740, so Jesus could presumably take or leave it.
Possibly the most interesting display of new year resolution, however, was the supposed "Vow of the Peacock" taken by medieval knights, who swore on a live or roasted peacock to uphold their vows of chivalry for another year, at least according to Charles Dickens. It was said that a "bevy of ladies" trucked in the bird in "a large vessel of gold or silver" during a great feast, taking it around to each knight to recite their vows before everyone dug in. This was presumably done with the cooked bird, as it's really hard to keep a live peacock still for that long.
We've Been Failing To Keep Our Resolutions Since The 1800s
Secular resolutions of the "I will stop blaming the dog for my farts" variety were cemented in Western culture by the late 18th century and well known enough by 1802 that the comedy writers of yore were already making jokes about not keeping them. In fact, the first time the words "new year resolution" appeared in print in 1813 was in the service of such mockery, when a Boston newspaper columnist wrote, "There are multitudes of 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, and with the full belief that they shall thus expiate and wipe away all their former faults." That's Victorian for "A done bun can't be undone."
Still, during the Great Depression, only about a quarter of Americans actually made new year's resolutions. By the end of the 20th century, however, that number nearly doubled. It's unclear why that is. Possibly, when the world went to hell for a it there, people began desperately scrambling for any illusion of control, up to and including ancient pacts with the gods that we've turned, only slightly less superstitiously, into pacts with ourselves. That hypothesis does start to fall apart, however, when confronted with the fact that resolutions for 2021 dropped back down to Great Depression numbers. We apparently have a threshold for how bad things can get before we go back to just leaving it up to the gods.
Top image: Artem Kniaz/Unsplash