Wednesday, January 8, 2014

New Year Resolutions

New Year's resolutions started with the Romans. Julius Caesar introduced the Julian Calendar in 46 BC and Romans, in general, began celebrating the new year on January 1. Astronomically, there is no reason January 1 is better than any other day for a New Year's resolution. The new year could start on any day, but it's useful to be consistent. A new year's resolution, therefore, as long as it doesn't concern writing dates, has the same weight as one made on any day.

Janus, however, is the god of doorways, gates, beginnings and transitions. He is often depicted as having two faces—he looks to the future and to the past. Thus, January, especially the beginning of the month, was a time of reflection on the past and the future. (In medieval Europe, the new year drifted from Dec. 25 to March 25 at various times and places, but was restored to January 1 in 1582 with the Gregorian calendar. Protestant Europe lagged, especially the British who did not reform the calendar until 1752—Washington was born Feb. 11, 1731, but in 1752, his birthday became February 22, 1732.)

The Romans' reflections on the new year were generally resolves to be good to others. As the empire embraced Christianity, these moral reflections became rituals of prayer and fasting. (As Myk reminded us with the Holly and the Ivy, Christianity may be seen as adding new, hopefully rich, language to religion.)

Perhaps the height of New Year resolutions came with Jonathan Edwards, Puritan theologian. At 19, before graduating valedictorian from Yale, he created 70 resolutions which he reviewed weekly, for 35 years. Thus, he read and reflected on his 70 resolutions 1,800 times before his death in 1758. Among his resolutions are:
  • Resolved, in narrations never speak anything but the pure and simple verity.
  • Resolved, Never speak evil of any, except I have some particular good call for it. 
  • Resolved, Never to suffer the least motions of anger toward irrational beings.
  • Resolved, Never to give over, nor in the least to slacken, my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.
  • Let there be something of benevolence in all that I speak.

Somewhere through history—I believe it was when someone made a New Year's resolution to eat more Peanut-Butter Rice Krispie Treats, and, that same year, another resolved to refrain from eating Peanut-Butter Rice Krispie Treats—that resolutions changed from reflections on life to make-a-wish. Currently the top New Year's resolutions are:
  • Spend more time with family and friends
  • Exercise more
  • Diet more
  • Quit smoking
  • Enjoy life more
  • Quit drinking
  • Get out of debt (my favorite)
  • Learn something new
  • Get organized
  • Help others

As a result, resolutions have become a powerful drag on modern lives. One survey suggests that 7 out of 10 people will lose more than $1,000 in failed self-help products and services related to this new type of New Year resolutions—that juicer, club membership, treadmill that don't quite pan out as wish fulfillers.

I think my New Year resolution is reflecting on this blog as a conversation both past, present, and future.

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