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New Year Resolutions: An Ancient Tradition

Promising to do better in the new year dates back to the Roman days.

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Welcoming in a new year is a good time to get a fresh start, and that is what New Year’s resolutions are all about. Each year, millions of people around the globe make promises to themselves for various reasons such as to eat healthier and exercise, get better grades at school, support your friends more, and a host of other deeds. The tradition of setting goals at the beginning of a new year is an old one, dating back 4,000 years ago to the ancient Babylonians, and the rituals were adapted and continued by other cultures throughout the ages.

The Babylonians took the new year seriously as it was the time when crops were planted. Their new year began in mid-March, not January, and they held a 12-day religious festival known as Akitu. During this celebration, they either crowned a new king or reaffirmed their loyalty to the current one. They made promises to the gods that they would return objects they’d borrowed, pay their debts, and other actions. This was the beginning of what we know today as resolutions.

In ancient Rome, Emperor Julius Caesar decided to change the calendar and made January 1 the beginning of the new year in 46 B.C. The month got its name from Janus, the two-faced god whose spirit inhabited doorways and arches. The Romans believed Janus symbolically looked both backward into the previous year and ahead into the future. In honor of the god and to keep in his good graces, the people offered sacrifices to the deity and made promises of good behavior for the coming year.

Early Christians took this time to reflect on their past mistakes and to figure out ways to do much better in the future. In 1740, John Wesley, the English clergyman who founded Methodism, created the Covenant Renewal Service which was held on either New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. Also known as the watch night services, the people would get together to read Scripture and sing hymns. Today, congregations, especially from evangelical Protestant churches, use the time to avoid the raucous celebrations while praying and making resolutions for the coming year.

Making resolutions is the easy part. Research suggests as many as 45% of Americans say they make resolutions, but only about 8% succeed in meeting those goals. The most common promise is to lose weight and it is also the one with the largest fail rate. Each January, gyms and fitness clubs are crammed with enthusiastic new members, but 60% of those paid-for memberships go unused and the facilities are usually back to their normal attendees by mid-February.

Some of the other more common failed resolutions include saving money and getting out of debt, traveling to new places, volunteering, and spending more time with family. Life can be hectic and oftentimes gets in the way of our good intentions. However, just because some resolutions flop doesn’t mean we should give up on them. After all, practice makes perfect, and this may just be the year that the promise actually sticks.

Kelli Ballard

National Correspondent at and Kelli Ballard is an author, editor, and publisher. Her writing interests span many genres including a former crime/government reporter, fiction novelist, and playwright. Originally a Central California girl, Kelli now resides in the Seattle area.

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