New Year's resolutions date back to ancient times

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By Rebecca Stiles
For Museum of the Albemarle

Sunday, December 24, 2017

It’s the closing of another year, and so begins the annual end-of-the-year tradition where people make New Year’s resolutions, and more than likely don’t follow through on them very long.

The making of a New Year’s resolution is a tradition in which a person resolves to change something about themselves, to accomplish a personal goal, or improve something in their life. But where did this idea originate?

The Babylonians made promises to their gods at the beginning of a new year that “they would return borrowed objects and pay their debts.” The Romans began each year by making promises to the god Janus, whom the month of January is named for. Janus is the god of time, but also of beginnings and endings. His symbol was that of two faces, so by the Romans beginning their year with a resolution, they could try to see if that resolution made it until the end, which is what many people still do in the resolutions they set for themselves.

Resolutions also had an impact during the medieval era, in which knights took “the peacock vow” at the end of the Christmas season to reaffirm their commitment to chivalry.

During Rosh Hashanah, the Judaism New Year, and culminating in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, one takes time to reflect upon their wrongdoings over the year, and to seek and offer forgiveness.

No matter how many origins there are, the overall theme seems to be people reflecting over the entire year, and trying to find ways to improve themselves or the quality of their lives. At the end of the Great Depression, many Americans formed New Year’s resolutions, and one can only imagine what those resolutions could be from people who suffered so much.

Many people, now, ponder the highs, but a lot dwell on the lows, which reminds this writer of a Mark Twain quote: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Each new year offers a fresh start, to set new goals for yourself, to overcome fears, conquer bad habits, improve your lifestyle, or even elevate your well-being. People tend to over think their resolutions, to set these resolutions so high that they wind up becoming unreachable, or never fulfilled.

This writer has learned that setting resolutions, even one as small as losing those extra ten pounds, can become very daunting. Despite the unknowable future, this writer advises everyone to be kinder to themselves, because with so much happening in the world, the number one rule is to always be kind to yourself.

Alfred Tennyson said: “Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, “it will be happier.” If there’s one resolution we could all try to set it’s to try and find happiness where you can.

Rebecca Stiles is an administrative assistant at Museum of the Albemarle.