New Year’s resolutions: Origin and why most fail

What is your New Year’s resolution for 2019? A New Year’s resolution today is understood as a promise to oneself focused on self-improvement in various areas.

People pledge to turn over a new leaf by being fitter, more productive and generally better versions of themselves. While recent research shows that as many as 45 per cent of citizens make New Year’s resolutions, only about eight per cent are successful in achieving their goals, which is hardly surprising as they are only accountable to themselves.

Nevertheless, this dismal record is not about to stop people making resolutions any time soon; after all we have had about 4,000 years of practice!

Historians believe that the ancient Babylonians were the first people to make New Year’s resolutions 4,000 years ago.

It is also on record that they were the first to hold celebrations in honour of the new year which for them began not in January but in mid-March, when the crops were planted.

Beginning with a 12-day religious festival known as Akitu, the Babylonians crowned a new king or renewed their loyalty to the sitting ruler. At this time, they also pledged to pay debts and return borrowed goods to keep in good standing with their gods whom they expected would reward them with a good harvest in return.

A similar practice took place in ancient Rome as early as 300 BC. However, Julius Caesar declared January 1 the beginning of the year around 46 BC.

The month was named after the god Janus, who had two faces and whose spirit inhabited doorways and arches.

The Romans believed he was symbolically looking into both the past and the future and wielded such power that they made sacrifices with promises to be good during the year ahead.

Then came the Christians who saw the new year as a chance to reflect on past mistakes, vowing to change their bad behaviour.

In 1740, John Wesley, founder of Methodism, created the Covenant Renewal Service on December 31/January 1 also known as the “night watch”, to counteract the parties and over-indulgencies of the citizenry.

This celebration included scripture reading, hymn singing and served as a spiritual alternative to the raucous parties normally held to welcome the new year.

These religious rituals found their way into secular traditions over time. Faith and rituals call to forces beyond our control or understanding that influence us in a magical way.

Midnight itself has magical connotations in almost every religious tradition, which would explain why we countdown to midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Notwithstanding the modern intent of these ancient traditions, businesses have been profiting from resolutions for decades; those that fail that is.

For example, one of the most popular resolutions is to get fit which explains the spike in gym memberships in January.

As most resolutions are broken within the first month, more than 50 per cent of those memberships go unused.

Looking back at the ancient traditions of both the Babylonians and the Romans, it is clear that individuals made pledges of self-improvement not just to themselves but to their rulers and gods to whom they were therefore accountable.

It was also well understood that there were consequences in the event that citizens did not honour their pledges, such as crop failure. Maybe not so well documented but there is also evidence of rituals of penance and re-dedication to our traditional African gods. I am reminded of my headmaster at Alliance High School, L.J. Campbell, who during a Saturday morning talk in 1969, quoting John F. Kennedy’s famous words “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” implored us to apply the same principle at our school.

Kenya is caught up in the web of corruption and its attendant vices. The government has embarked on a major exercise to wrestle the dragon of corruption through State organs but this can only succeed if citizens, in tandem, commit to turn over a new leaf as in ancient times.

I particularly like the ancient pledge to repay debts and return borrowed (in our case, stolen) goods to keep in good standing with the State and the gods.

Our pledges for self-improvement need to start with our family, our community, our country and our God, to all of whom we must be accountable. Too many of us sit back and expect other people to bring about change as we continue to point fingers.

What is your personal pledge this new year to your country? You are the lowest common denominator!

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