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The History and Origins of New Year's Resolutions

Wild and creative rituals to set intentions for the new year have been around since ancient times.

By April M. Short

Think New Year’s resolutions are a mere gimmick, perhaps to encourage healthier habits like starting your mornings with a mushroom and adaptogens-infused coffee alternative? Think again. While today's resolutions often involve healthy eating, quitting smoking, or home organising—three popular goals in our modern era—the tradition of setting new intentions at the year's turn is believed to date back over 4,000 years, with these ancient intention-setting practices found in numerous cultures worldwide.

Our present-day New Year's resolution tradition possibly originates in Biblical Times with the Babylonians. These are the same individuals referenced in the Old Testament’s Genesis, who endeavoured to build a tower so lofty it would reach the heavens—the Tower of Babel. This led to a jealous God wreaking havoc on their city and distorting their language, causing them to “babble” incoherently forevermore.

According to a 2020 article on by Sarah Pruitt, the ancient Babylonians are credited with being the first to record celebrations honouring the new year and might have been the first to make New Year’s resolutions. However, there were significant differences—for instance, their new year commenced not in January, but in mid-March with the sowing of crops. Their equivalent of a modern New Year’s celebration was the Akitu, a 12-day religious festival centred on crowning kings, as noted by anthropologists.

In Babylonian culture, during Akitu, they made promises to the gods, like pledging to repay debts or return borrowed items. These pledges are akin to our modern resolutions, but with a far more spiritual bent. The Babylonians believed that by keeping these promises, they would curry favour with the gods and start the year off on the right foot.


Creative Rituals for Setting New Year's Intentions from Across the Globe

The Babylonian custom of pledging to undertake specific tasks in the forthcoming year might closely resemble our culture's "New Year's resolutions," but globally, there are a myriad of imaginative and unconventional ways to establish new goals and intentions for the year ahead. These methods range from singing songs, enjoying special foods, donning unique attire, to engaging in divination, with many of these traditions stretching back centuries, if not millennia.


New Year's Eve: A Feast of Fate

It seems that what we consume on New Year's Eve is more significant than one might assume. Rather than monitoring our diet throughout the year to shed pounds as per typical resolutions, some longstanding traditions suggest that our choice of New Year's food could dictate our fortune for the year to come. Cultures worldwide partake in traditional feasts to bid farewell to the old year and lay the groundwork for a prosperous new one. Research indicates that this custom may date back to prehistoric times. A 2010 study by the University of Connecticut revealed, “Community feasting is among the most universal and pivotal social behaviours found amongst humans. Scientists have unearthed the earliest clear evidence of organised feasting, at a burial site approximately 12,000 years old.” Coupling this with cultural anthropological evidence that early humans, as far back as the Neolithic era, marked the passing of years based on lunar and solar cycles, it's highly plausible that New Year's feasting has ancient origins.

Traditional New Year's feasts often include "lucky" foods that symbolise intentions for the upcoming year. In Spain, for example, the custom of eating 12 grapes at midnight, each representing a month of the year, is believed to guarantee a fortunate year ahead. This relatively recent tradition is thought to have been initiated in 1909 by ingenious winemakers in Alicante, aiming to offload surplus grapes, as detailed in a 2023 article in Food Republic. In various parts of the world, including Mexico, Greece, and the Netherlands, round cakes are baked to represent life's cycles, setting a positive tone for the new year. In countries like Austria, Portugal, and Cuba, pigs symbolise progress and success, making pork a popular New Year's culinary choice. In China, "long life" noodles have been a Lunar New Year staple for about 1,800 years, dating back to the Han Dynasty. And in Japan, since the Edo period starting in 1603, people have consumed soba noodles on New Year's Eve to signify a break from past challenges and a fresh beginning.


Dress for the Year You Desire

The tradition of dressing up for New Year's Eve might originate from early-modern European customs (around the 17th and 18th centuries), intertwined with the belief that one's NYE attire could influence their fortunes in the year ahead. In a 2016 Bustle article, Marlen Komar discusses both contemporary and historical self-adornment rituals practised to secure a positive new year. She explains that the ancient Scots, celebrating the new year around Samhain (the ancient precursor to Halloween), were among the first to observe this custom.

“The Scots were believed to be one of the inaugural groups to celebrate New Year's, known as ‘Hogmanay,’” Komar writes. “Similar to laying out a sequinned dress for a major celebration, they would change into cattle hides for the occasion.”

The Persian New Year, Nowruz, rooted in ancient Iran, occurs on the vernal equinox, signalling the onset of spring in the northern hemisphere. Part of the weeks-long Nowruz festivities includes donning new garments to start the year with renewed energy and intentions.


Ignite Your Resolutions

Evidence suggests that humans have harnessed fire for at least a million years, tracing back to our pre-hominid ancestors, with ritualistic fire use dating back around 70,000 years. These ancient fire practices are echoed in some of our present-day traditions. For instance, on our birthdays (our personal new year), we extinguish a candle flame to make a wish, a custom potentially originating from ancient Greece. In Mexico, fire ceremonies marking the new year date back to Aztec times. Many European myths and legends include a yule log or traditional solstice fire, as well as fire rituals to commemorate various natural cycles throughout the year.

This New Year's Eve, you might write your resolutions on paper and burn them in a yule fire, while indulging in auspicious foods and wearing your most empowering outfit. However you choose to set your intentions or make your resolutions this season, you're participating in an ancient, globally-shared tradition.



Photo by Kevin Hackert on Unsplash

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