Making A New Year's Resolution? Thank The Babylonians.

Brilliance | Dec. 17, 2017

If you're like most people, you made a New Year's resolution. You also didn't follow through with it. Ever wonder why we keep making these annual promises to ourselves that we can't keep? It's all thanks to the ancient Babylonians.

A 4,000-Year-Old Tradition

The Babylonians didn't celebrate the new year at the same time most of the modern Western world does: instead of January 1st, their big day was around the start of the spring harvest in mid-March. They held a raucous 12-day festival known as Akitu, during which the people either reaffirmed their loyalty to the king or crowned a new one. They also made oaths to the gods to pay their debts and return anything they had borrowed. But unlike today's resolutions, which only result in a few unshed pounds or some unread self-help books if they fail, failed Babylonian resolutions faced more dire consequences: they fell out of favor with the gods, which could very well snuff out existence as they knew it.

It was the famous Roman emperor Julius Caesar who changed New Year's Day to January 1 back in 46 B.C. Appropriately, we get the word "January" from the two-faced Roman god Janus, who was believed to look simultaneously into the past and the future. The Romans traditionally offered sacrifices to Janus around the 1st of January, including making promises of good behavior for the following year. This tradition of promising to do good in the future continued into Christianity: in 1740, father of Methodism John Wesley began the Covenant Renewal service, an event held on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day that are still spent praying and making resolutions to this day.

New Year's Resolutions Today

Somewhere along the way, most New Year's traditions lost their religious spirit and became secular. They're still popular as ever, though: according to a survey, 44 percent of Americans made a New Year's resolution for 2015, though a 2002 study predicts that less than half kept theirs beyond six months.

Bonus fact! Another tradition of the Babylonian Akitu festival required the head priest to strip the king of his royal vestments and slap him hard in the face. If the king shed a tear, it was believed that the god Marduk approved his reign for another year.

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