How Did New Year’s Resolutions Start?

Here we are, the beginning of a new year. If you are like most people, you probably made you list of resolutions, the things you want to work on this year. Resolutions can be about personal growth, financial freedom, or to do more work around the house. They are as varied as the people who make them. Have you ever wondered where this tradition started? Let’s take a look at the roots of the New Year’s Resolution.

The Babylonian Connection

The first possible New Year’s Resolution dates back 4000 years ago, to the ancient Babylonians. The Babylonians were also one of the first recorded people to host a celebration for the new year. For them, their new year began close to what we now call Mid-March, when crops were planted. The massive festival known as Akitu lasted for 12 days and was topped by either crowning a new or reaffirming their loyalty to the current king. They also made promises to their gods to pay their debts and to  return borrowed items. If they completed these promises, they gained favor of the gods. If they did no? Well no one wants to displease their gods. These promises are the closest to what we know as modern resolutions.

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A Caesar Calendar

In 46 B.C., Emperor Julius Caesar introduced, what would later be called, the Julian Calendar. This calendar reigned in effect until 1582. The Julian calendar asserted that January 1st was the start of the new year. This date was used to honor the god, Janus. Janus was the two-faced god believed to look back into the old year and forward into the new. The Romans celebrated this by making offerings to Janus and by making special promises for their good behavior in the coming year.

The Christian Connection

The Middle Ages also had their version of resolutions. Each year, Knights, would renew their vow of chivalry by placing their hand on a live or roasted peacock. This renewing of their vow of chivalry took place at the end of the year, during the last feast of Christmas. It was a vow for them to continue to maintain their knighthood values. Peacocks or pheasants were used due to their correlation to nobility.

“The most celebrated of all the vows of chivalry were those that were called “The Vow of the Peacock”… These noble birds – for so they qualified them – perfectly represented, by the splendor and variety of their colors, the majest of kings during the Middle Ages, when superbly arrayed, they held what was called “Tinel” or full court… THe flesh of the Peacock according to the old romances, was the peculiar diet of the valiant knights and heart-stricken lovers, and its plumage was considered by the Provençal ladies the richest ornament with which they could deck the crowns the bestowed on the Troubadours. – Charles Dickens, All the Year Round

Early Christians considered the first day of the new year the perfect occasion for thinking about their past mistakes and resolving to do better. By 1740, John Wesley an English clergyman and founder of Methodism, created a service called the Covenant Renewal Service. It was most commonly held on New Year’s Eve and was known as watch night services. These services consisted of reading from scriptures and singing hymns, it served as a spiritual alternative to the parties that were normally being held during the time.

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Resolutions Of Today

It would seem that the New Year’s Resolution is one of the few customs that has made a jump completely awar for its religious/spiritual origins. Today they are mostly used in a secular way, as a means to starting diets, reducing bad habits, and spending out time in more meaningful ways. Instead of offering the “prayers” up to the gods, we leave ourselves as the solely accountable to ourselves to carry them out. One could argue this may be a reason why so many people seem to fail at carrying them out.

According to studies done by, Only about 45% of Americans say they make resolutions. In comparison, in the UK 22% of the people make resolutions that involve self improvement. Out of those that do, only about 8% carry them out successfully. Roughly 80% of the people who make resolutions end up breaking them by the first week of February. Is this because of the change to more mundane resolutions?

Why Do Resolutions Fail?

The reason most of us make resolutions are due to guilt driven responses to the excess we seem to spend more of our year living. This only seems to get worse around the holidays when we abandon any kind of caution to extremes like food and alcohol. Think of all the Christmas parties that we hold during this time of year. All the dinners that start around Thanksgiving and continue onward. That leads to all of us feeling the pang of guilt as the hours whittle away to the end of the year. These resolutions to eat healthier and lose weight lead to us buying new cookbooks, opening gym memberships, and swearing off the food and beverage that got us to our more softer looking selves.

We get through January with the fervor of starting anew and becoming this idea we have in our heads. Sweating and trying to change our routines to compensate the new lifestyle. Just as quickly as we made those resolutions the first week of February comes and many of us just seem to forget we made them. Perhaps it is because we don’t see some huge change in things during that first month.

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Why do our resolutions seem to fail? There are too many reasons to fully catalogue here, but we will go with some of the more basic ones. The truth is, to change our lives and selves requires a lot of dedication and serious change in our way of thinking. Personally, I feel this one is the biggest reason because of our unreal expectations of change. We think we can go to the gym a couple weeks and our bodies will somehow transform into this svelte and lithe figure we have always wanted. Change requires a shift in how we process thought and look at things and that is just as hard as committing to a new healthier regiment.

Keepin’ Up With The Resolutions

So many of us wonder how we can keep those closely held resolutions we make each year and not fail. Is there a sure fire plan to keep them? The simple answer is no, it requires hard work and changes to how we perceive and interact with our world. There are things you can do to make it a bit easier. Here are five tips to help you keep your resolutions.

  1. Think Small – Look for small things you can accomplish easily to help build resolve to tackle larger ones and make a contract to keep it. Example, when I come home and change my clothes, all dirty clothes will go in the hamper, no excuses.
  2. Build Self Trust – Don’t make resolutions you know you wont keep. Congratulate yourself on the succeeding on the completion of your goals.
  3. Invent Challenges – Set a challenge that says you wont watch your favorite show until you exercise for at least 20 mins. These are what is called trust muscle builders and work like muscle memory.
  4. Cultivate Optimism – Focus on the positive. The reality is that no one’s life is without negativity but how you deal with it is important. Dont go in with the attitude that you will probably fail. It is a choice to be negative, make a better choice.
  5. Develop Critical Awareness – Be mindful of all of your habits, even the destructive and self-sabotaging ones. When those thoughts come into your mind, recognize them and actively choose to think differently
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For Auld Lang Syne

Resolutions have changed greatly since some of the first recording aspects of them. For many years, resolutions were seen as a religious decoration and may have given the creator more reason to keep them going. As we have moved from a religious/spiritual aspect of the New Year’s, those commitments have become much more mundane. The truth is they are hard to keep up with and require a change in how we see ourselves and interact with our world. You could always do what I did. I made the resolution to never make resolutions again. I have been successful in that and have not looked back since.


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