The Rites of New Year’s Resolutions

By Bolanle Bolawole 0705 263 1058

Practically everyone makes New Year’s resolutions at this period of the season – that is, towards the end of a closing year and the beginning of a new one. I made my own New Year resolutions for the “Triple T” year of Twenty Twenty-Two (2022) a fortnight ago. I have often made New Year resolutions but my degree of success has often varied. How about you? Many people follow the tradition of New Year’s resolutions for the fun of it. Others do it because they see others do so. It is doubtful if many know the origin or full import of New Year’s resolutions. There are those – like an old classmate of mine – who, if they get to know the pagan origin of New Year’s resolutions, just like the pagan origin of Christmas and the current 12-month calendar, may be tempted to do away with it!

According to Sarah Pruitt, the custom of making New Year’s resolutions has been around for thousands of years, even though it has not always looked the way it does today. “The ancient Babylonians are said to have been the first people to make New Year’s resolutions some 4,000 years ago. They were also the first to hold recorded celebrations in honour of the New Year—though for them the year began not in January but in mid-March when the crops were planted. During a massive 12-day religious festival known as Akitu (not Atiku!), the Babylonians crowned a new king or reaffirmed their loyalty to the reigning king. They also made promises to the gods to pay their debts and return any objects they had borrowed. These promises could be considered the forerunners of our New Year’s resolutions. If the Babylonians kept to their word, their (pagan) gods would bestow favour on them for the coming year. If not, they would fall out of the gods’ favour—a place no one wanted to be.

“A similar practice occurred in ancient Rome, after the reform-minded emperor Julius Caesar tinkered with the calendar and established January 1 as the beginning of the New Year circa 46 B.C. Named for Janus, the two-faced god whose spirit inhabited doorways and arches, January had special significance for the Romans. Believing that Janus symbolically looked backwards into the previous year and ahead into the future, the Romans offered sacrifices to the deity and made promises of good conduct for the coming year.

“For early Christians, the first day of the new year became the traditional occasion for thinking about one’s past mistakes and resolving to do and be better in the future. In 1740, the English clergyman John Wesley, founder of Methodism, created the Covenant Renewal Service, most commonly held on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. Also known as watchnight services, they included readings from Scriptures and hymn singing, and served as a spiritual alternative to the raucous celebrations normally held to celebrate the coming of the New Year. Now popular within evangelical Protestant churches, especially African American denominations and congregations, watchnight services held on New Year’s Eve are often spent praying and making resolutions for the coming year.

“Despite the tradition’s religious roots, New Year’s resolutions today are a mostly secular practice. Instead of making promises to the gods, most people make resolutions only to themselves, and focus purely on self-improvement… According to recent research, while as many as 45 percent of Americans say they usually make New Year’s resolutions, only 8 percent are successful in achieving their goals. But that dismal record probably won’t stop people from making resolutions anytime soon—after all, we’ve had about 4,000 years of practice!”

HISTORY.COM EDITORS agree substantially with Sarah when they conclude that “Civilizations around the world have been celebrating the start of each new year for at least four millennia. Today, most New Year’s festivities begin on December 31 (New Year’s Eve), the last day of the Gregorian calendar, and continue into the early hours of January 1 (New Year’s Day). Common traditions include attending parties, eating special New Year’s foods, making resolutions for the New Year and watching fireworks displays.

“The earliest recorded festivities in honour of a new year’s arrival date back some 4,000 years to ancient Babylon. For the Babylonians, the first new moon following the vernal equinox—the day in late March with an equal amount of sunlight and darkness—heralded the start of a new year. They marked the occasion with a massive religious festival called Akitu (derived from the Sumerian word for barley, which was cut in the spring) that involved a different ritual on each of its 11 days. In addition to the New Year, Akitu celebrated the mythical victory of the Babylonian sky god Marduk over the evil sea goddess Tiamat and served an important political purpose: It was during this time that a new king was crowned or that the current ruler’s divine mandate was symbolically renewed.

“In order to realign the Roman calendar with the sun, Julius Caesar had to add 90 extra days to the year 46 B.C. when he introduced his new Julian calendar. Throughout antiquity, civilizations around the world developed increasingly sophisticated calendars, typically pinning the first day of the year to an agricultural or astronomical event. In Egypt, for instance, the year began with the annual flooding of the Nile, which coincided with the rising of the star Sirius. The first day of the Chinese New Year, meanwhile, occurred with the second new moon after the winter solstice (with superstition, myths and fears of the unknown as its source).

“The early Roman calendar consisted of 10 months and 304 days, with each New Year beginning at the vernal equinox; according to tradition, it was created by Romulus, the founder of Rome, in the eighth century B.C. A later king, Numa Pompilius, is credited with adding the months of Januarius and Februarius. Over the centuries, the calendar fell out of sync with the sun, and in 46 B.C. the emperor Julius Caesar decided to solve the problem by consulting with the most prominent astronomers and mathematicians of his time. He introduced the Julian calendar, which closely resembles the more modern Gregorian calendar that most countries around the world use today.

“As part of his reform, Caesar instituted January 1 as the first day of the year, partly to honour the month’s namesake: Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, whose two faces allowed him to look back into the past and forward into the future. Romans celebrated by offering sacrifices to Janus, exchanging gifts with one another, decorating their homes with laurel branches and attending raucous parties. In medieval Europe, Christian leaders temporarily replaced January 1 as the first of the year with days carrying more religious significance, such as December 25 (the anniversary of Jesus’ birth) and March 25 (the Feast of the Annunciation); Pope Gregory XIII re-established January 1 as New Year’s Day in 1582.

“In many countries, New Year’s celebrations begin on the evening of December 31—New Year’s Eve—and continue into the early hours of January 1. Revellers often enjoy meals and snacks thought to bestow good luck for the coming year. In Spain and several other Spanish-speaking countries, people bolt down a dozen grapes – symbolizing their hopes for the months ahead – right before midnight. In many parts of the world, traditional New Year’s dishes feature legumes, which are thought to resemble coins and herald future financial success; examples include lentils in Italy and black-eyed peas in the southern United States. Because pigs represent progress and prosperity in some cultures, pork appears on the New Year’s Eve table in Cuba, Austria, Hungary, Portugal and other countries. Ring-shaped cakes and pastries, a sign that the year has come full circle, round out the feast in the Netherlands, Mexico, Greece and elsewhere. In Sweden and Norway, meanwhile, rice pudding with an almond hidden inside is served on New Year’s Eve; it is said that whoever finds the nut can expect 12 months of good fortune!

“Other customs that are common worldwide include watching fireworks and singing songs to welcome the New Year… The practice of making resolutions for the New Year is thought to have first caught on among the ancient Babylonians, who made promises in order to earn the favour of the gods and start the year off on the right foot… In the United States, the most iconic New Year’s tradition is the dropping of a giant ball in New York City’s Times Square at the stroke of midnight. Millions of people around the world watch the event, which has taken place almost every year since 1907… Chinese New Year is the most important holiday in China. In 2022, Chinese New Year will begin on February 1…”

Now, you understand the origins of New Year’s resolutions as recorded by Western written history! You also should have seen from the above that so-called paganism, superstitions and fear of the unknown were (are) not limited to the Africans or the Black people of the world. Why do we make New Year’s resolutions in modern times? Many reasons have been adduced, including that it affords us an opportunity “to look at the changes we would like to make in our lives and how to accomplish them. A resolution is like a promise to us to improve our lives and to make the New Year a better one for ourselves and others” Why do this at the beginning of the New Year? Explanations also include that, that period of the year is best for us to make a “fresh start, and a clean canvas provides an opportunity for change. When you commit to change, whether verbalized or not, you are taking the first step to whatever it is you want to accomplish” Is making New Year’s resolutions a waste of one’s precious time? Some say yes, especially going by the dismal record of success usually recorded by many in fulfilling their New Year’s resolutions. Others, however, are of the opinion that it is worth the effort because they reckon that “you are ten times more likely to achieve your goal if you make a resolution than if you do not”. Remember the saying: He who fails to plan plans to fail!

Data from YouGovAmerica give four reasons why we should still make New Year’s resolutions despite that the success rate appears dismal. One: Following a critical review of your present circumstances, you formulate the intention of what you want to become and where you want to be in the New Year. Two: Making a New Year’s resolution is an affirmation of hope and a desire to engage to make your goals come to pass within a stated specific time. Three: You are consciously committing to taking steps to make things happen in your life. In other words, you are taking your destiny in your own hands, as the Marxists will say. Finally, New Year’s resolutions are a source of inspiration that fires the imagination. Many have committed suicide or gone on killing sprees when hope of a better tomorrow was lost.

If you agree with any, a combination or all of the above reasons, then, go ahead and make your New Year’s resolutions for the first of the “Triple T” years – the year Twenty Twenty-Two (2022)! Wishing my readers a safe, happy and prosperous New Year! (Published in the Sunday Tribune of Sunday, January 2, 2022).

Former editor & chairman of the editorial board of The PUNCH newspapers, BOLAWOLE is a columnist with the Sunday Tribune (ON THE LORD’S DAY column) and the New Telegraph newspaper (TREASURES column every Wednesday). He is also a public affairs analyst on radio, television, traditional and digital media.

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