History of New Year’s Resolutions: Where did they begin?

Janus Ponte FabricioHISTORY OF NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS

As we mentioned earlier, New Year’s Day celebrations began in pre-Christian times, beginning with the Babylonians in March but changed to January by the Romans. January gets its name from Janus, the two-faced god who looks backwards into the old year and forwards into the new. Janus was also the patron and protector of arches (Ianus in Latin), gates, doors, doorways, endings and beginnings. He was also the patron of bridges and we see this statue (pictured at left,) set on the bridge Ponte Fabricio which crosses the Tiber River in Rome to Tiber Island, where it survives from its original construction in 62 BC during the time of Julius Caesar. Even today it is believed that if you touch the Janus head as you cross the bridge, it will bring good fortune.

The custom of setting “New Years resolutions” began during this period in Rome, as they made such resolutions with a moral flavor: mostly to be good to others. But when the Roman Empire took Christianity as its official state religion in the 4th century, these moral intentions were replaced by prayers and fasting. For example, Christians chose to observe the Feast of the Circumcision on January 1 in place of the revelry otherwise indulged in by those who did not share the faith. This replacement had varying degrees of success over the centuries, and Christians hesitated observing some of the New Year practices associated with honoring the pagan god Janus.

As we’ve described elsewhere, even as recently as the 17th century, Puritans in Colonial America avoided the indulgences associated with New Year’s celebrations and other holidays. In the 18th century, Puritans avoiding even naming Janus. Instead they called January “First Month.”

In contrast to this, the Puritans urged their children to skip the revelry and instead spend their time reflecting on the year past and contemplating the year to come. In this way they adopted again the old custom of making resolutions. These were enumerated as commitments to better employ their talents, treat their neighbors with charity, and avoid their habitual sins.

Jonathan EdwardsThe great American theologian Jonathan Edwards, brought up in New England Puritan culture, took the writing of resolutions to an art form. But he did not write his resolutions on a single day. Rather, during a two-year period when he was about 19 or 20 following his graduation from Yale, he compiled some 70 resolutions on various aspects of his life, which he committed to reviewing each week.

Here are just three:

  • Resolved, in narrations never to speak anything but the pure and simple verity.
  • Resolved, never to speak evil of any, except I have some particular good call for it.
  • Resolved, always to do what I can towards making, maintaining and establishing peace, when it can be without over-balancing detriment in other respects.

 

How do your resolutions compare?

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

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7 comments… add one

  • I just loved the passion Jonathan Edwards had when it comes to self-examination and making a difference by starting with himself. As you stated, it is a little humbling. Your post has caused me to review his writings in more depth. Thank you!

    Reply
  • Excellent piece. Fascinating connections. Illustrative how many try to make the “puritanical” ethic out to be cruel, but you see in Edwards a strong drive toward peace and harmony. I will have to read more of his work.

    Reply
  • While compiling a reflective list of the YinYang in my life over the past year, I stumbled across this article. It gave me better insight into the history of New Year’s resolutions and further piqued my curiousity into the philosophy of Jonathan Edwards. Thank you.

    Reply
  • I’ve done some quick research on this topic before and never found anything quite as good as this. Deftly done! Neat how Jonathan Edwards was all over self-control techniques. My own book on procrastination draws upon his as well, as per: http://www.biblebb.com/files/edwards/procrastination.htm

    Reply
  • I handle the quasi-imperative of “making resolutions” at the turn of the new year (for if not now, when?) by breaking the thing up into two or three month periods. As the seasons change, so do my resolves.

    Reply
  • Nice read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing some research on that. And he actually bought me lunch as I found it for him smile Thus let me rephrase that Thanks for lunch! gdfddfdbfcff

    Reply
  • Josh, no. Rather:

    1) Romans named January after Janus – god of doorways and gateways…to the new year, for example.
    2) People (still) touch the Janus on the Ponte Fabricio bridge for good luck, which is why it is so worn.
    3) “New Year” was changed from March to January by the Romans — probably in the mid 5th century.

    -Bill

    Reply

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