The History of the New Year's Resolution
An American Tradition
As the first of January approaches, people in most of the West and other parts of the world make resolutions to become a better version of themselves. Being no exception, Americans have been major participants in the New Year’s resolution tradition. At the end of the Great Depression, one-fourth of Americans made New Year’s resolutions of self-improvement. In the twenty-first century, nearly half of Americans participate in making New Year’s resolutions.
A recent poll showed that 68% of Americans surveyed said they will not be making New Year’s resolutions, which is a 10% increase from two years ago. Nonetheless, 46% of Americans under the age of 30 will be making New Year’s resolutions; and, these resolutions will seek to improve financial, mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. Some examples of popular resolutions include losing weight, exercising more, getting out of debt, saving money, quitting drinking alcohol and/or smoking cigarettes, among several others.
While the New Year’s resolution is mostly a secular tradition today, New Year’s resolutions have religious origins in both Eastern and Western cultures. The earliest record of New Year’s resolutions date back 4,000 years ago to ancient Babylonia, and Babylonians made promises to their gods and paid their debts at the beginning of the New Year. The Babylonian New Year was in the spring season, which was a time symbolic of rebirth. On the other hand, the ancient Egyptians celebrated the New Year during the autumn season. When the river Nile flooded, it allowed the start of growing crops for the Egyptian way of life.
During the Jewish New Year observance Rosh Hashanah, people reflected on their wrongdoings and sought to offer and receive forgiveness. During this time, which was representative of man’s creation, God judged the deeds of people for the coming year. In Chinese New Year’s tradition, people honored deities by cleansing their homes to sweep away bad luck and allow good fortune to enter. The ceiling was to be cleaned with bamboo leaves, which were believed to “sweep” away ill luck, to prepare for the New Year.
The Western world uses the Roman calendar, which has evolved with the West. The early Romans made gifts and promises in honor of Janus, the god for which the month of January was named in the modern calendar. This significant Roman god who was the guardian of beginnings and endings, Janus was the protector of the New Year threshold. In Medieval Europe, knights reaffirmed commitments to chivalry known as “peacock vows” at the end of the Christmas season.
During this time, Roman religion influenced the practice of Christianity in the Catholic religion; for example, Pope Paul sent King Pepin a sword and peacock feathers characteristic of the vow of chivalry. Contrary to popular belief that chivalry was solely the manner in which men treated women, chivalry was the maintenance of justice through the cross shaped sword. Symbolic of the sacrifice Jesus Christ made to the world, chivalric justice was destroying the enemies of the Christian faith with the sword.
At this point, New Year’s resolutions in the Western world became about making sacrifices. According to Catholic tradition, people mostly fasted as personal sacrifice during Lent in the spring. Eventually, the New Year’s resolutions practiced today in winter were directly influenced by the practices during Lent. Like New Year’s eve, “Fat Tuesday” traditionally marked the day before Lent symbolic of splurging in the area of personal sacrifice one was willing to make. Like New Year’s day, “Ash Wednesday” marked the beginning of Lent in the sacrifice of personal indulgences.
Common Lent sacrifices are similar to New Year’s resolutions, such as quitting the eating of indulgent foods, drinking of alcohol, and/or smoking of cigarettes. While Lent lasts 40 days and the New Year lasts 365 days, Lent is a journey of believers to the observance of the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ and the first of the year is a journey of the wise men to the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ. In both senses, Christ was a gift given to the world in birth and death through sacrifice; and, the self-improvement resolutions thereof are of a sacrificial nature.
Happy New Year!
Interestingly, the success of New Year’s resolutions is not as popular as the resolution itself. According to a study of 3,000 cases in 2007 by Richard Wiseman at the University of Bristol, 52% of the participants were confident in the success of their New Year’s resolutions. However, 88% of those resolutions failed one year later. This study showed that when men implemented goal setting, they had a 22% increase in success. Women, on the other hand, had a 10% increase in success when their resolutions were made public.
In a book titled A Course in Happiness, Frank Ra stated that “resolutions are more sustainable when shared.” “Both in terms of with whom you share the benefits of your resolution, and with whom you share the path of maintaining your resolution,” continued Ra, “peer support makes a difference in success rate with new year’s resolutions.” So, make sure to share your New Year’s resolutions with others and hold yourself accountable to keeping them. Whatever New Year you celebrate, happy New Year!
 Jackson Alexander, “A History of New Year’s Resolutions,” The Newsline (Stillwater: Oklahoma State University, 2013), 1.
 “Poll: Most Americans Don’t Make New Year’s Resolutions, Go Out to Celebrate,” CBS News (posted December 29, 2013); Alexander, “A History of New Year’s Resolutions,” 1.
 “Popular New Year’s Resolutions,” USA.gov (updated December 24, 2013).
 Diane Meier, The Season of Second Chances: A Novel (New York: Henry Holt & Co., LLC, 2010), 146; Alexander, 1.
 Meier, The Season of Second Chances: A Novel, 146.
 Ezekiel 40:1.
 Judyth Groner and Madeline Wikler, All About Rosh Hashanah (Minneapolis: Kar-Ben Publishing, 1997), 4.
 Patricia Bjaaland Welch, Chinese New Year (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 9.
 Alexander, 1.
 C. Scott Littleton, ed, Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology, Vol. 6 (Tarrytown, New York: Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 2005) 770
 Alexander, 1.
 Allen J. Frantzen, Bloody Good: Chivalry, Sacrifice, and the Great War (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), 87.
 Ibid, 88.
 Alexander, 1.
 Laurie N. Bowen, Food for the Family Spirit: A Sourcebook for Religious Education (Kansas City, Missouri: Sheed & Ward, 1997), 101.
 Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1969), 11.
 Luke 2:11; John 3:16.
 “New Year’s Resolution Experiment,” Quirkology: The Curious Science of Everyday Lives, (accessed December 30, 2013); Alexander, 1.
 Frank Ra, A Course in Happiness: An Authentic Happiness Formula for Well-Being, Meaning, and Flourishing (Amazon: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011), 120; Alexander, 1.
© 2013 Marilyn Prado
Marilyn Prado (author) from Gainesville, Florida on January 01, 2014:
Thank you! It's a historical article, which requires research methodology.
poetryman6969 on January 01, 2014:
I don't believe I have seen an hub that displays the research with it like this. Interesting way to do it. More like college or literary paper.