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 New Year resolutions are an admirable thing, but what are they really all about?
New Year resolutions are an admirable thing, but what are they really all about?


Here’s a thought. When you read the stories in here, what do you think? I don’t mean whether you actually like the stories. I mean . . . what is your instinctive feeling about the writer? Do you simply assume that we’re all experts on what we’re writing about? I imagine that many of you do. The reality, though, is different. At one extreme we’ll be interviewing people, accumulating facts, and taking detailed notes about what they say. Now and then there will be a topic that we know about. More or less! But at the other end of the scale, we won’t have a clue, and head straight for Google.


Like this story for instance. Hands up all of you who are experts on the topic of New Year resolutions. No, not about how many of them you have made and then broken, but about the idea behind them, and how it all began. How it was, and is now observed and celebrated, and in what ways by different nations and cultures. Who’s heard of the Roman god, Janus, for example? You see, there’s a lot more to this than meets the eye.


The first thing I learned was this: after 30 minutes of Googling there wasn’t one writer who’d said a word about anything – any country or culture – except for his own, and seven out of every 10 articles were American-based. Plus 90% of these were about how to keep the resolutions that you’d made, and how to be strong and psychologically motivated. Also, it’s almost impossible to find any information on the southern hemisphere – remember, all nations and cultures celebrate the New Year in one way or another. So much for Google!


I suppose that it all comes down to pagan cultures, and the gods, who were far more important than they’ve become today. This is how New Year resolutions all began – making promises to the gods, not to ourselves. Also, don’t forget that different parts of our planet had their ‘new year’ at different times. And this was always close to the time when the failing sun began to rise again in the sky; what we now call in the northern hemisphere the ‘winter solstice’.
P86-2 It’s no accident that throughout all ages and in every culture, the sun god has been worshipped far more than any other.


Historical records about annual good intentions kick off with the Babylonians, some 4,000 years ago. They were also supposedly the first to hold celebrations in honour of the New Year – although for them this happened not in January, but mid-March. The people made promises to the gods to ‘pay their debts and return any objects they had borrowed’. If they kept to these vows then the gods would bestow favour on them. If not, they would fall out of the gods’ favour, and the results of that didn’t bear thinking about.


Moving up the timeline, in around 1,200 AD, the Incas set about much the same sort of thing with their nine-day festival of ‘Inti Raymi’, held in July. The big difference here was that they were a far more bloodthirsty lot, and their sun god, Inti, demanded that all good intentions be accompanied by some serious sacrifices. In this instance he was happy enough to be offered animals, but no doubt was also impressed by the parades and colourful processions!


At which point we move towards the global spread of Christianity, and take a look at The Romans. The European pagan culture in its different forms was slightly more off-centre, being buoyed-up not by the reappearance of the sun, but rather marking the new year by the end of the harvest season, traditionally at ‘Samhain’ at the beginning of October. But the majority of ordinary folk were guided by the solstice, and considered their new year to begin at this turning point. This was the cultural soil into which the Romans seeded Christianity.


Their winter solstice fell on the 21st of December each year, and was celebrated by the pagan celebration of ‘Yule’. The Roman emperor, Constantine, cleverly cashed-in on this in 318 AD, by keeping all the same festivities in place and merely changing the name from Yule to Christmas. The Roman New Year was celebrated on January 1st – indeed the month is named after their god, Janus. He is depicted with two faces, one looking back to the old year and the other forwards, towards the new. And so it didn’t take much persuading for the early Christians to tack another festival on almost alongside Christmas, just a few days afterwards.


At which point we need to nosedive away from the familiar western New Year and take a peek towards the east. And here it’s easier to consider not nations, but beliefs. The Chinese New Year for instance, is wellestablished and celebrated around the world. According to the lunar calendar, it falls around the end of February. And, in amongst all the ritual and symbolism, there’s a truck-load of good intentions. Houses are cleaned and repainted to signify leaving behind the bad deeds, thoughts and regrets of the old year. Debts are paid off, gratitudes expressed and wishes of good luck and prosperity bestowed on family and friends. And it’s much the same in many ways with the Thai New Year, Songkran,which pops up a few months later in April. This additionally involves rituals of purification and gestures of respect to ancestors, family and friends. And, again, there’s the similar resolve to be more honest, truthful and worthy of merit.


Meanwhile back in the west, our resolutions are far more plentiful. Golly-gosh, do we westerners have fuller lives or what! We’re going to give up alcohol or become more physically fit. Eat only 800 calories a day. Cut out fast-food. Start a serious diet. Learn three perfect party jokes. Spend less time online. Live life ‘like every day was the last’. Get rid of all our bad friends. Stop worrying, cut our hair, eat more vegetables, buy better lottery tickets and many, many more. Spot the common factor?


Yes. It’s all about self, self, and self. So let me be the first to make a resolution – writing this way back in December. My resolution this time around will be to make resolutions which aren’t all about me. How about you?



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