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Ancient History of New Year’s Resolutions

A New Year’s resolution is a tradition, most common in the West but found around the world, in which a person makes a promise on New Year’s Eve to make certain changes or self-improvements in the year ahead.  It is believed that the Babylonians were the first to make New Year’s resolutions around 4,000 years ago, and people all over the world have been breaking them ever since!

The ancient Babylonians made promises to their gods at the start of each year, which began in mid-March, that they would return borrowed objects and pay their debts.  March was a logical time period for the New Year because spring begins and crops are planted.  But the Babylonians had a greater motivation to stick to their promises than what we have today, because for the ancient people of Mesopotamia, keeping their promise would mean that their gods would bestow their grace on them throughout the course of the following twelve months, and breaking them would put them out of favour.

The practice carried over into Roman times with worshippers offering resolutions of good conduct to the two-faced deity named Janus, the god of beginnings and endings, who looks backward into the old year and forward into the new.

In the Medieval era, knights took the “peacock vow” (les voeux du paon) at the end of the year to re-affirm their commitment to chivalry, while early Christians believed the first day of the new year should be spent reflecting on past mistakes and resolving to improve oneself in the new year.   At watch night services, many Christians prepare for the year ahead by praying and making these resolutions.

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