Ancient promises: why we make resolutions at New Year

Making resolutions at New Year is by no means a recent phenomenon. The tradition has a rich history; resolutions have been made (and broken) for thousands of years. From ancient Rome to the present day, people have reflected on the past and made plans to put their best foot forward for the year ahead.

The majority of people today celebrate New Year and make resolutions. Resolutions typically include losing weight, quitting a bad habit or managing time or money more closely. From workaholics planning more family time to singles looking for romance, the tradition is widely accepted as a part of mainstream western culture. Recently, it’s also become commonplace for people to make a ‘life list’ or ‘bucket list’ as it’s sometimes known, a list of things they was to achieve, see, do and experience during the next year or over the course of their lifetimes.

Ancient beginnings

Today we follow the Gregorian calendar, which has been in place since 1582. The first month of the calendar, January, follows the custom of Ancient Rome in marking January 1stas the first day of the calendar. This began in 153 BC, before Julius Caesar reformed the calendar in 45 BC.

January itself is named after the Roman god of beginnings, Janus. Janus is usually depicted with two faces; one face looks to the future, the other to the past. Janus was the Roman god of transition, bridges, arches, doorways and gates. His two-faced image quickly became a symbol of the New Year when people could look back at past events and set their minds to the future.

This was the birthplace of the New Year’s resolution. Citizens used the New Year to resolve disputes and seek forgiveness. Gifts and promises were believed to bring good luck for the year ahead.

Religious changes

The Roman Empire fell but many of the traditions remained. Christianity shaped the way people marked the New Year; fasting and prayer replaced Pagan celebrations. Puritanism encouraged resolutions that avoided sins and practised charity. The New Year was moved to December 25th and then to March, before returning to January with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar.

Auld Lang Syne

Today it is a common tradition to sing Auld Lang Syne at midnight on New Year’s Eve. The song is based on a Scots poem written by Robert Burns in 1788, and focuses on tradition and friendship.

Other New Years

Each culture has its own New Year traditions. Chinese New Year takes place on the new moon of the first lunar calendar month and is a time of large celebrations. Fireworks and dragon dances decorate the streets of Chinese communities and people gather for meals with friends and relatives.

In Spain it is considered good luck to eat 12 grapes at midnight, whilst in the Netherlands bonfires are lit, burning Christmas trees from the holidays. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is celebrated during the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. Jewish communities sound a shofar horn and eat festival-specific foods.

How about something a bit different?

Do you think that New Years Resolutions are a bit outdated? Less and less people are making them, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do anything. Over on the eHarmony UK Facebook page they have been talking about the difference between life lists and resolutions and whether life lists offer a more positive way of living. One theory is that you are more likely to reach your targets if you have them written down. While I haven’t written my own list I admit I do enjoy looking at the ‘top 100’ and seeing how many I’ve already achieved or done… what do you think?

Resource Box:

Calendars from around the world

Alan Longstaff (2005) provides information on calendars in different cultures.

New Year’s traditions

A history of Old Lang Syne, as well as traditions and customs from around the world.

The Roman calendar

This page contains a history of the Roman calendar


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