It was the Babylonians who made the first formal recorded New Year’s resolutions 4000 years ago. In case you don’t know: They built the city of Babylon near the Euphrates river in Mesopotamia. You can find the ruins of the ancient city in modern day Iraq. (Before the war, now I’m not so sure)
The Babylonians held a new year festival lasting for twelve days in mid-march, for the start of the lunar calendar and time of fresh growth. The primary purpose of the festival was for citizens to either pledge their allegiance to the current king or to crown a new one, in those days the kings had a short lifespan. As it was a religious culture, it was time to appease the gods. In order to do that, it was important to pay your debts and return anything that you had borrowed the previous year in order to start the new year afresh. This ensured that you could concentrate on growing crops that would prosper. It helped if you got your plough back, and that sack of seed potatoes that Jim borrowed, and the meadow down by the river where Fred had been grazing his sheep, and the shears that the new guy at the end of the lane had.
Think about that for a minute, each year you pay all your debts, financial or otherwise, return everything you have borrowed and start the new year with a clean slate. Not such a bad tradition.
The new year didn’t move to January 1st until Julius Caesar took charge of the roman empire in 46BC. The Romans followed a lunar calender, and it was out of sync with the moon. So much so that if he travelled around his empire, he never knew in which month he would arrive. Difficult travel hadn’t caused this, it was because people couldn’t keep track of the date using the moon. He hired astronomer’s and mathematician’s to calculate a new calender based on the sun, not the moon.
To celebrate he named the first month after Janus the two faced god, who could look both back to the past and forward to the future. There would be a party, during which every citizen promised good conduct.
See how sneaky he was, an annual holiday in exchange for promising to behave to follow whatever rules he dreamed up, and he dreamed up quite a few. Does this sound a bit like Santa Claus? I think his equivalent of a piece of coal in your stocking was very, very nasty.
Although most of the Western world changed to the new calender, the roman Catholic church didn’t accept the new year date of January 1st. Because the new calendar wasn’t accurate enough, and once again didn’t always match either with either the lunar or the solar cycle.
In 1582, the pope ordered the calculation of a new calendar, and this new Gregorian calendar is the one we use today. The new year celebrations with the resolutions, of promised good conduct, from the romans, and renewed purity from Pope Greggory continued as a tradition, even when the political and religious overtones had been disregarded.
You can see where these twin resolutions fit into modern life. Purity being interpreted as health and education and good conduct as kindness and voluntary action. These make up our most popular resolutions today.
Do more exercise
Save more money
Join a voluntary organisation
Improve family time.
Self improvement playing a much smaller part in new in other parts of the world, for example China where certain foods and actions bring good luck and cleaning and buying new clothes signify change.
In Iraq, where it all started, they have three different new year Celebrations, Christian, Muslim and Kurdish or traditional. There is nothing like hedging your bets.
Medieval knights vowed on a peacock to keep the laws of chivalry… and then ate the peacock.
Within the Christian church, New Year’s resolutions became a serious part of the yearly cycle, thanks to two people.
John Wesley created a new year service now called a watch night service but which he called a covenant renewal service. The purpose of which was to pray and renew your covenant with God.
Johnathan Edwards, the evangelist not the athlete, took New Year’s resolutions so seriously that he took two years and wrote 70 resolutions to live by.
Including, and I like these,
5. Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I
6. Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.
7. Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.
8. Resolved, to act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings as others; and that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself…
Are there any celebrity resolutions? Well, there are a few, but when it comes down to it we are all pretty much the same, only the place or manner in which we make the resolutions change according to our status, wealth or religious belief.
So what will you resolve to do? Covid regulations have denied most of us the lavish party, or even the watch night service with friends.
You could always fall back on the peacock!
In fact, that’s my first resolution: Get a peacock. You never know when you’ll need one!