HISTORY 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.
The month of January gets its name from Janus, the two-faced god who looks backward into the old year and forwards into the new. Janus was also the patron and protector of arches (Ianus in Latin), transitions, time, 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 followers of the goddess Juno have a competing claim to the month of January, according to according to ancient Roman farmers’ almanacs.)
The custom of setting “New Year’s resolutions” began during this period in Rome two millennia ago, 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 to observe 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.”
Instead, the Puritans urged their children to skip the revelry and spend their time reflecting on the year past and contemplating the year to come. In this way, they again adopted 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.
The 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