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The History of New Year's Resolutions

Turns out, we've been creating rituals to set intentions for the new year since ancient times

April M. Short

Think New Year’s resolutions are just a gimmick to sell people on healthy habits like, say, starting your mornings off with an adaptogenic mushroom coffee alternative (see what we did there)? Think again. While people’s resolutions haven’t always involved healthy eating, quitting smoking, or home organizing (three of the most popular resolutions of our modern times), traditions of setting new intentions and goals at the turn of the year are thought to stretch back more than 4,000 years. And these atavistic intention-setting practices are found in myriad cultures around the world.

Our modern-day New Year's resolution tradition has possible roots stretching back to Biblical Times and the Babylonians. You may know about these guys from the Old Testament story in Genesis, in which they scheme to build a tower so high it will reach the heavens (known as the Tower of Babel), so a jealous God wrecks their city and distorts their language, causing them to “babble” incomprehensibly forever thereafter—hence the name. 

According to Sarah Pruitt’s 2020 History.com article, the ancient Babylonians were the first to keep records of celebrations honoring the new year, and may have been the first to make New Year’s resolutions. There were some significant differences, though—like the fact that their new year “began not in January but in mid-March, when the crops were planted,” as notes History.com. Also, their version of a New Year’s ball drop in Times Square was apparently to throw a 12-day religious festival called Akitu centered on king-crowning, according to anthropologists.

“They also made promises to the gods to pay their debts and return any objects they had borrowed,” Pruitt writes. “These promises could be considered the forerunners of our New Year’s resolutions. If the Babylonians kept to their word, their (pagan) gods would bestow favor on them for the coming year. If not, they would fall out of the gods’ favor—a place no one wanted to be.”

Creative Rituals to Set New Year's Intentions from Around the World

While the Babylonian tradition of vowing to do certain things in the coming year might be the closest early resemblance to our culture’s “New Years resolutions,” there are plenty of wild and creative ways to set new intentions and goals (or, ahem, resolutions) from around the world—from songs, to foods, to clothing, to divination. And many of these traditions date back hundreds, even thousands, of years.

You Are What You Eat ... On New Year’s Eve

Apparently, we should watch what we eat ... not throughout the year in order to lose weight as per our resolution, but on New Year’s Eve. According to some time-held traditions, our New Year's foods could decide our annual fate. Cultures around the world have traditional feasts to mark the passage of the old year and set the intention for a bountiful new year—and there is some evidence that this tradition goes back to prehistoric times. According to a 2010 study by the University of Connecticut, “Community feasting is one of the most universal and important social behaviors found among humans. Now, scientists have found the earliest clear evidence of organized feasting, from a burial site dated about 12,000 years ago.” Pairing this evidence with the cultural anthropological evidence that early humans, going back to Neolithic times, celebrated the passage of years based on moon and sun cycles, there is a good chance the tradition of New Year's feasting goes way, way back.

Traditional New Year’s feasts often set intentions for the new year with certain “lucky” foods. For instance, people in Spain have a tradition of eating 12 grapes at midnight, representing the 12 months of the year, in order to ensure a sweet new year. This relatively modern tradition supposedly originates with enterprising winemakers in Alicante who created the superstition in 1909 in order to sell off their grape surplus, as is detailed in a 2023 article in Food Republic. In keeping with the theme of calling in a year of sweetness, many places around the world—including Mexico, Greece and the Netherlands—traditionally bake round cakes to symbolize the cycles of life, and to set a positive tone for the coming year. In Austria, Portugal, Cuba and elsewhere, pigs often represent positive things like progress and success, so eating pork is a New Year culinary intention-setting tradition. In China, people have eaten “long life” noodles on the lunar new year, dating back about 1,800 years to the Han Dynasty. And in Japan since the Edo period that began in 1603, people have eaten soba noodles on New Year’s Eve to break away from the challenges of the old year and symbolize a fresh start.

Dress for the Year You Want

Our tradition of dressing up for New Year’s Eve celebrations may go back to early-modern traditions—around 17th and 18th century Europe—and the superstition that one’s NYE look could help to set intentions for the year to come. In a 2016 article in Bustle, Marlen Komar outlines both modern and ancient self-adornment rituals people practiced to ensure a positive new year. It all started, she explains, with the ancient Scots, who celebrated the new year around Samhain—the ancient earth-based holiday behind Halloween.

“The Scots were thought to have been one of the first groups to celebrate New Year's, with their variety being called ‘Hogmanay,’” Komar writes. “And just as you would lay out a beaded number on your bed for a big celebration, they changed attire for the event by putting on hides of cattle.” 

The Persian New Year, called Nowruz, has roots in ancient Iran and takes place on the vernal equinox, which is the start of spring in the northern hemisphere. Among weeks of festivities and traditions related to Nowruz is the practice of wearing new clothes to start out the new year with fresh energy and intentions. 

Set Your Resolutions on Fire

There is evidence that fire has been with humans for at least a million years, dating back to our pre-hominid ancestors. And there is evidence that human ritual involving fire goes back at least 70,000 years. We can see the traces of ancient fire practices in some of our modern traditions—like how, on our birthdays (our personal new year), we blow out a candle flame to make a wish (which may date back to ancient Greece). In Mexico, fire ceremony marks the new year, dating back to ancient Aztec traditions. Many ancient European myths, legends and traditions involve a yule log or traditional fire at the winter solstice, as well as fire rituals to celebrate other natural junctures in the year, marking the passage of time. 

Maybe this NYE, you’ll write down your resolutions on paper and burn them in your yule fire, while eating lucky foods, adorned in your most empowering outfit. However you set your intentions or make your resolutions this season, you’ll be continuing an ancient historical tradition shared by humans around the world.

April M. Short is a journalist, editor, yoga teacher and feminine rites practitioner. She's an editor at the Independent Media Institute and helped co-found multiple psychedelics-focused media outlets. She has spent more than a decade in independent media working in both digital and print journalism, and her writing is published in the San Francisco Chronicle, LA Yoga, Salon, The Conversation and many others. Follow her yoga and ritual work on Instagram: @AprilClarkYoga.

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