Every January I find myself saying the phrase “new year, new me” any time I do anything remotely healthy or out of the ordinary. Ate a salad: new year, new me. Went to the gym: new year, new me. Read a book rather than binge watching seven hours of Netflix in a row: new year, new me. I’m a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. Every year I resolve to get fit, do more with my free time, actually put money into my savings account, make more of an effort to catch up with people, stop buying a coffee every day. But as February dawns and 2019 really kicks into action, all of those January New Year’s resolutions are already falling by the way-side. So, as I sit here sipping my iced mocha that I guiltily spent seven dollars on, I can’t help but wonder if the nineteenth century residents of Christchurch were also in the habit of making (and breaking) New Year’s resolutions.
It turns out the practice of making New Year’s resolutions long pre-dates the Victorian era, by around 4,000 years. The ancient Babylonians are said to be the first people to celebrate the beginning of the New Year and to make New Year’s resolutions. During Akitu, a 12-day religious festival taking place in mid-March (their new year), the Babylonians either crowned a new king or reaffirmed their allegiance to the current king. As part of this festival they also made promises to their gods to pay their debts and return borrowed objects (not dissimilar to my recurring New Year’s resolution to actually save money). In return for keeping their word the gods would bestow favour on them for the coming year. So not quite my resolution to stop buying daily coffees, but a resolution nonetheless.
Many other cultures also made New Year’s resolutions (or promises similar to a New Year’s resolution). The Romans made promises of good behaviour and offered sacrifices to Janus, the two-faced god that symbolically looked backwards to the previous year and forwards to the up-coming year. In 1740 John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, started the tradition of the Watch Night service. During the Watch Night service, Wesleyans would show penitence over shortcomings and failures from the previous year, whilst making resolutions of greater faithfulness for the year ahead. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the practice of making resolutions at the start of the year was common; but it was not until 1813 that the phrase “New Year’s Resolution” was first used.
The first reference to New Year’s resolutions that I found in New Zealand newspapers was written by the Lyttelton Times in 1860. Following their recap of the 1859 year in which they accused residents of talking too much, praised the progress of the settlement, and discussed the plans for a tunnel and railway between Christchurch and Lyttelton, the newspaper announced their New Year’s resolution was to fully support the building of the railway. Unfortunately for the Lyttelton Times, this resolution did not come to be, with work beginning in 1860 but stopping shortly after the contractors struck rock. It was not until 1867 that the Lyttelton rail tunnel was officially opened.
Given the quantity of satirical stories and jokes written about New Year’s resolutions, it would appear the making (and breaking) of resolutions was a common practice in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These satirical resolutions included promising to get on better with the boss, not being so stressed about things, and women resolving not to speak to their husbands (I highly recommend clicking on the links and reading the articles for yourself, they are quite hilarious).
As well as being used for humour, New Year’s resolutions appear to have become a big marketing ploy for businesses by the early twentieth century. Many advertisements listed in December and January encouraged potential customers to make it their New Year’s resolution to purchase new items from their stores, with everything from umbrellas to hats, and shoes advertised. My favourite marketing campaign that played on the idea of a New Year’s resolution is the one pictured below for Valaze, a type of skin cream. The New Year’s resolution the advertisement appeals to is the resolution to be beautiful, which I love because it makes it sound like women woke up on January 1st and said “Right, this year’s my year, I’m going to be beautiful now”.
From reading through these old newspaper stories and advertisements, it seems like our Victorian and Edwardian era ancestors had a similar approach to New Year’s resolutions as we do today. People made resolutions to be a “better” person, be that by giving up smoking, drinking, or becoming beautiful. But it was commonly accepted that many people did not stick to their resolutions, leading to the many satirical stories about people breaking their resolution. This practice of wanting to start the New Year afresh, to make it better than the last, is one we continue on today, and is one of the few ways we aren’t so different from our forebearers.