3, 2, 1…Happy New Year! As we celebrate to greet the approach of 2023, it also marks the beginning of a new period, a new beginning. During this time, many people would make a list, usually called “New Year’s Resolutions,” of things that they want to change or begin or goals that they want to accomplish. While this practice is of Western tradition, its origins run long before the Western world was even created, into the lands of the Middle East.
The Babylonians from 4,000 years ago were believed to be the first to create New Year’s Resolutions. They were also the earliest found to have recorded celebrations to honor the new year, which was in mid-March instead of January, when crops were planted. During a 12 day festival called Akitu, Babylonians promised deities to pay off any debts and return anything borrowed; Babylonians also reaffirmed their loyalty to the current king or crowned a new king. By keeping their pledges, it is believed that their gods would favor them in the new year, or else they would be against the gods.
After Julius Caesar established the modern day Gregorian calendar, ancient Romans changed their new year’s celebration, originally also in mid-march, to January 1, beginning of the new year around 46 B.C. January was named after Janus, a two-faced god of doorways and arches. Janus’s two faces faced two ways: the past and future. During new years, Romans would offer sacrifices to Janus and make resolutions of good conduct. This practice continued into the Middle Ages, where medieval knights would have an annual “Peacock’s Vow” as the previous year ends. They would maintain their knighthood into the new year by placing their hands onto a live or roasted peacock.
In early Christianity, English clergyman John Wesley, who founded Methodism, created the Covenant Renewal Service, also known as the watch night service, usually hosted on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. This ceremony usually includes Scripture readings, singing hymns, and was a peaceful alternative to the commonly rowdy New Year’s celebration. Currently this practice is popular for Evangelical Protestant churches, where night services held on New Year’s Eve are spent making resolutions for the approaching new year. 1
Over time, what originated as a religious practice transformed into a secular activity done by people worldwide that focuses on self-improvement.