Planning to exercise more or eat fewer sweets in the New Year? If so, you’re taking part in a tradition that stretches back thousands of years. More than 4,000 years ago, the ancient Babylonians celebrated the New Year not in January, but in March, when the spring harvest came in. The festival, called Akitu, lasted twelve days and saw the crowning of a new king, or reaffirmation of loyalty to the old king, should he still sit on the throne. Special rituals also affirmed humanity’s covenant with the gods.
Centuries later, the ancient Romans had similar traditions to ring in their new year, which also originally began in March. In the early days of Rome, the city magistrates’ terms were defined by this New Year’s date. On March 1, the old magistrates would affirm before the Roman Senate that they had performed their duties in accordance with the laws. Then, the New Year’s magistrates would be sworn into office. As the Romans gradually became less warlike, the switch from celebrating the New Year during a month associated with Mars (March) the god of war to one associated with Janus, a god of home and hearth, took place in January. The first half of New Year’s Day in Rome would have been taken up by public ceremonies, oath-taking and temple sacrifices while the second half of the day was for social activities. Citizens would bring each other gifts of honey, pears and other sweets as presents for a "sweet new year".
There is no direct line from ancient Roman tradition to modern New Year’s resolutions, but the desire to start anew pops up repeatedly in western civilisation. In 1740, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, invented a new type of church service. These services, called Covenant Renewal Services or watch night services, were held during the Christmas and New Year’s season as an alternative to holiday partying. Today, these services are often held on New Year’s Eve, according to the United Methodist Church. Worshippers sing, pray, reflect on the year and renew their covenant with God.
Today, New Year’s resolutions have become a largely secular tradition, and most people who make them now focus on self-improvement and the most popular resolutions are: losing weight, volunteering more, stopping smoking, eating better, getting out of debt and saving money. Sadly about 88% of those who make a New Year resolution fail so, if you are setting a resolution, then set yourself small, measurable goals and get the support of others!