Nokuro/Shutterstock New Year’s resolutions have been around long enough that we all seem to stick to the same ones—hit the gym, lay off the candy, read more books, call your mother—regardless of whether we follow through with our intentions. (Perhaps we all could benefit from these creative strategies to help you keep your New Year’s resolution.)
While January 1 seems like the perfect time to start anew, exactly when people developed that mindset isn’t common knowledge. It turns out, the modern notion of a New Year’s resolution isn’t as old as you thought. But the idea of a clean slate—well, that has been around for centuries.
According to many historians, the ancient Babylonians were the first group of people to make New Year’s resolutions. However, instead of making a commitment to self-improvement, they made a commitment to the gods to pay their debts and return any objects they had borrowed. Their resolutions—as well as their “new year” celebration—also took place in mid-March, when new crops were planted.
An ancient Roman tradition from 46 B.C. bears even more resemblance to modern resolutions. After Emperor Julius Caesar declared January the month of Janus, the two-faced god who inhabited doorways and arches, the first of the month had a special symbolism. Romans believed Janus looked backwards into the previous year and ahead into the future. In his honor, they made sacrifices to the god and promises of good behavior for the coming year.
But the modern New Year’s resolution didn’t fully form until centuries later. Merriam-Webster states that the practice was common enough by the early 1800s that people had begun to satirize the process: “An article from Walker’s Hibernian Magazine in 1802 states that ‘the following personages have begun the year with a strong of resolutions, which they all solemnly pledged to keep’, before enumerating a series of obviously fictitious resolutions (‘Statesmen have resolved to have no other object in view than the good of their country…the physicians have determined to follow nature in her operations, and to prescribe no more than is necessary, and to be very moderate in their fees.’)”
The first time “new year’s resolution” appeared as a phrase was in the January 1 issue of a Boston newspaper from 1813. “I believe there are multitudes of people,” the article goes, “accustomed to receive injunctions of new year resolutions, who will sin all the month of December, with a serious determination of beginning the new year with new resolutions and new behavior, and with the full belief that they shall thus expiate and wipe away all their former faults.”
So as you make (and possibly fail at) your new year’s resolution, know that you’re in good company. People have been doing so for thousands of years, and we still haven’t perfected the process. Want to give it a whirl anyway? These are the 13 New Year’s resolutions that will change your life.