SALT LAKE CITY — With Christmas behind us, the new year is just days away. That means, among other things, a barrage of listicles and think pieces looking back at 2017 — its highs, its lows and everything else it had to offer.
It also means a chance to look ahead to 2018. One of the most common ways people will do that, of course, is with resolutions for the new year.
According to Statistic Brain, committing to do things like lose weight or live life to its fullest or “save more, spend less” is a ritual that around 58 percent of all Americans say they take part in.
When it comes to keeping those resolutions, though, the numbers can look pretty dismal. One statistic cited by U.S. News indicates that as many as 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail by the second week of February. And by the end of the year, that number could climb to as much as 92 percent, according to another commonly cited statistic.
So where does the tradition of setting nigh-impossible-to-achieve New Year’s resolutions even come from?
The exact origin is hard to pinpoint, partly because it’s so universal.
The first known occurrence of the phrase “new year resolution” comes from the early 19th century, but the practice itself arguably goes back much, much farther than that — about 4,000 years, in fact.
According to History.com, the first record of people making ritualistic promises as a way to ring in the new year dates back at least to the ancient Babylonians, a group that emerged in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) in the second millennium B.C.
During a wild, 12-day festival called Akitu, the Babylonians would renew vows of loyalty to their king — or crown a new one — as well as make promises to do things like settle any outstanding debts and return borrowed items to their original owners.
Unlike today, though, the Babylonian New Year was celebrated in March at the start of spring harvest, and the promises weren’t just personal goals; they were promises to the gods themselves. Failure to achieve them, in other words, could lead to divine punishment — and possibly the end of all creation. (Talk about incentive for sticking to that new diet!)
The practice of making promises at the start of each new year carried on into the Roman Empire, where it became even more associated with the nuts-and-bolts operation of the government. According to Live Science, in the early days of Rome, every March 1, city magistrates and military leaders would gather before the senate and publicly declare that they had fulfilled their legally required duties. Afterwards, like the Babylonians, vows would be renewed for the next year and new officials would be sworn in.
According to History.com, in 46 B.C., Julius Caesar changed New Year’s Day from March 1 to January 1. The choice was partially symbolic; the name January, after all, was a Roman word that commemorated the two-faced god of transitions, Janus, who looks backwards and forwards simultaneously — a very appropriate theme on New Year’s.
But there was also a pragmatic side to it, according to Live Science: Spring was the best time of year to wage war, so it didn’t make sense to have the generals traveling to and from Rome for a public swearing-in when they could be battling and conquering instead.
Western Europe during the Middle Ages had its own colorful twist on New Year’s oath-taking known as the “Vow of the Peacock.”
None other than Charles Dickens described the ritual in his self-published periodical “All the Year Round,” recounting how knights would gather together during the final feast of the Christmas season, take turns placing their hands on either a live or roasted peacock and reaffirm their commitment to the ideals of chivalry over the next 12 months. And then they would all eat the peacock.
Today’s New Year’s resolutions
It isn’t entirely clear when the mostly externally focused oaths taken at New Year’s time by the Babylonians, Romans and other pre-modern civilizations — usually promises to perform some outward duty — turned into the more internally focused New Year’s resolutions that people set for themselves nowadays — to shed a few pounds, to be kinder to family members, etc.
According to Merriam-Webster.com, a 1671 diary entry by Scottish writer Anne Halkett might be the earliest known reference to “resolutions” made at the New Year.
By the early 19th century, the practice — and people’s habitual failure to stick to their resolutions — had become commonplace enough that a satirical article about it appeared in an 1802 issue of “Walker’s Hibernian Magazine,” listing some of the resolutions it claimed had been made that year: “Statesmen have resolved to have no other object in view than the good of their country. 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.”
It wasn’t until a few years later, though, in 1813, that the whole phrase, “new year resolution,” occurred for the first time in a Boston newspaper. The unknown author wrote in a passage that could describe things today just as well:
“And yet, I believe there are multitudes of people, 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 full belief that they shall thus expiate and wipe away all their former faults.”
For those setting resolutions in 2018, there is some good news: Even if the majority of them fail — and fail fast — there’s evidence that just making them in the first place is better than not. According to a study by psychologist John Norcross, individuals who have committed to effect change in their lives in the form of a New Year’s resolution are 10 times more likely to see that change occur than individuals who haven’t set any specific goal.
If that still isn’t enough, then consider the fact that making resolutions is one way to take part in a tradition that has existed the world for at least 4,000 years — proving that failure to keep those resolutions won't mean the end of the world.
Jeff Peterson studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia.