ACT News

Explainer: The ancient origins of the modern New Year's Eve tradition

Who invented the New Year's resolution?

The real question here is "who invented the year?" Because once mankind was able to track the beginning and an end of the seasons, and the lunar and solar cycles – and therefore mark a new and an old year – we were in a position to think ahead to "what's next?" In 2013, archaeologists found the world's oldest calendar in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. It was remarkably sophisticated, allowing for astronomic corrections – and a stunning 10,000 years old. So it's not a huge leap to think of an ancient hunter and gatherer looking upon the calendar and thinking: "Must use sharper spear this year! Must kill woolly mammoth, win bride's heart."

Yeah, but ... really? Doesn't sound like much of a party

Until the Aberdeen discovery, all credit for marking the new year went to the Babylonians, and they partied hard. Four thousand years ago they rung in the new year with an 11-day festival, and are said to have made the first recorded New Year's resolutions – to the gods as a way of currying favour, but also themselves by resolving to get out of debt. Anyone with a horror credit card statement can relate. The festival occurred in what was known then as the month of Nisan​, around the spring equinox – in what we now call March.

January is named after Janus, the two-faced Roman god of beginnings and transitions.
January is named after Janus, the two-faced Roman god of beginnings and transitions. 

Were the Babylonians into self-improvement?

Probs. According to the Bible, the Babylonians built the Tower of Babel. King Nimrod's idea was to build an enormous tower to keep all his people together in the sone spot. (Melburnians can relate as moon-scratching apartment blocks fill the CBD.) The tower was also a tribute to the creation of the earth rather than the Creator. God, not pleased, cast the people all over the Earth, and gave them new languages – so they couldn't actually talk to one another. So ... when the new year came, the Babylonians who stayed put probably resolved to learn Italian and try new foods.

But what about January? When did we get the New Year as we know it?

It all began with a toga party, baby. The Romans named January (Ianuarius in Latin) after the two-faced god Janus – and this is where new year resolutions began in earnest. Janus wasn't a fence-sitter, a two-timer or a font of mendacity – he was the god of doors and new beginnings. In the spirit of moral rejuvenation, Romans pledged to be good to others – and for a few days the slaves of the city were treated to a feast and some of the social barriers were temporarily loosened. All of this was done to please the gods. Later, when Christianity took root and the pagan gods were banished, the new year promises became even more moral, and tied up with prayer. The January 1 marker, however, took a while to catch on – and it wasn't until 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII introduced his Gregorian calendar (which was really the Julian calendar from 46 BC) that Europe adhered to the New Year's Day that we celebrate today.

Many people don't have a god to keep happy – so why bother making resolutions?

It was never about keeping your god happy for the sake of it – it was about handing over one's troubles and trusting that the corn god would deliver the harvest, that the rain god would fill the river, and that the big all-knowing, Swiss Army-knife God of everything would keep life running smoothly – and when it got hard, well, you took comfort in the idea that God knew what he was doing. A global survey published last April found 63 per cent of the world's population are in some way religious – so a lot of people, when making their New Year's resolutions are still counting on some divine assistance. The rest of us feel fat, stressed, guilty and a bit clueless – and we want some or all of it to change. So there's that – and at first look it seems banal, and a bit trivial. But really it's about feeling in better control of your life.

Just about every week I feel life isn't as smooth as it should be. Why wait for the new year to make a promise to sort myself out?

Actually, we don't wait for the new year to make promises to ourselves – or, even better, to take action. Every time we slip up – yelling at the kids, hungover from too much wine, waddling away from the over-laden dinner table and looking for a bucket, regretting the purchase of cute shiny shoes that now look ridiculous and will take eight years to pay off – we have a private, sometimes despairing moment that we can somehow do better. And we even make vague fleeting plans to do so. All of this is true. But research shows that we are more optimistic about making a change if we have a starting line – a firmly marked moment that promises a new beginning. While 40 per cent of resolutions fail in the first six months, some short-term success hads been enjoyed. And this short-lived success can work to motivate another crack down the track.

Advertisement

Fat and angry and poor? Isn't there anything deeper and more meaningful at play?

Oh yes. Knowing that we will eventually die is a big part of what what makes us human. And with each passing year, and accumulating failures and successes, as the arc of our lives become clear, the desire for change takes on a great poignancy. It can feel that too much has been left too late, and a kind of urgency sets in. The upside is this: it's time and pressure that makes a diamond. For the opinion of world experts see here.