No sooner have the crackers been pulled, the last crumbs of the Christmas pudding have suspiciously vanished and the Quality Street tin has taken on a decidedly hollow sounding tone when the lid is tapped, than we start to turn our attention to New Year’s resolutions.
As humans it seems we operate very much on an effort (or punishment, in some cases) then reward strategy. Work then play. Jobs during the day, fun in the evening. Work during the week, relax at the weekend. So how come it’s over-indulge with treats at Christmas, pay for it with a punishing exercise regime and miserly diet in the New year? My guess is that we’d never do it!
I’m pretty sure the Babylonians, who are believed to have started the making of New Year’s resolutions, were not particularly worried about purchasing the latest celebrity exercise DVD to whip themselves into shape ready for the beach half a year later. Instead, it seems they were more concerned with returning farm equipment they’d previously borrowed, paying off debts and generally making promises to curry favour with the gods, in the hope that their new year would start off well. Bribery, me thinks! Even though New Year’s Day falls on different dates, according to whether different cultures observe a solar or lunar calendar, and depending on different beliefs throughout history, the desire to celebrate and practise certain traditions, in the hope that they’ll bring luck for the coming year, does not seem to have temporal or geographical boundaries.
New Year’s seems to be the longest observed holiday in the world. The Babylonians, with their eleven day celebration – each day celebrated differently – kicked things off back around 2,000 BC, while the holiday emerged in Western countries about 400 years ago. Despite all this, I rather feebly haven’t quite “got with the programme”. In the midst of all the fireworks, parties and vocal bursts of “Auld Lang Syne”, I’ve never quite felt I’m there. I’ve always had a strange feeling about it, like there’s a thin vaporous layer of melancholy levitating just above me throughout the last day of one year and the first day of the next one. Every year I try to shake off or suppress the feeling, because I don’t like to be miserable about these things, and I certainly don’t like to spoil the time for anyone else. So I try to throw myself into things and appear to be in the spirit of it all. Maybe the explanation for these feelings is simply disappointment because as a child I loved Christmas so much and felt that New Year’s was just a fancy way of saying Christmas was over for nearly another year. (Consequently, as I’ve gotten older I’ve made a conscious effort to try to make the most of the twelve days of Christmas.) Or perhaps the unease is a warning that I’m not embracing the opportunity for reflection that New Year’s so easily and eloquently delivers, with a positive enough attitude. Instead of worrying about what might change for the worse I should be focussing on feeling gratitude for the good things that have already happened.
Over the years I know I have made some New Year’s resolutions, but I have no idea what they were! So, even though they’ve been being made for around 4,000 years (not mine personally, you understand!), people with my sort of dedication to the cause have probably been breaking their resolutions throughout that time. No doubt I meant well with mine for the first couple of weeks, having tried hard every day for the first week and a bit, only to start to tire of it and allow myself to succumb to some welcome distraction or other. And then on the next day, too. And then the resolution was broken. Oh, dear.
I have heard that February is a much better month for sticking to resolutions. Its 28 days can be neatly parcelled up into equal quarters, allowing us to form healthy habits, repeat them, and then keep to them. Hooray! Plus we’re not stuck with all the post-Christmas guilt in such high intensity. I can’t help thinking that with the pressure slightly taken off in that way, we’d be more likely to succeed.
If that’s the case, I find myself wondering, are people who live by a lunar calendar more likely to keep their New Year’s resolutions? And if so, would they do it with more ease? Julius Caesar had to let the previous year last 445 days when, in 46 BC, he established what would become the Julian Calendar, so as to synchronise the new calendar with the sun. This begs the question, would we be more likely to break our resolutions if the year was longer, and keep them if the year was shorter?
As with any milestone at a set interval, New Year’s certainly does seem to be a time to pause and ponder. For early Christians, the first day of a new year was a time to resolve to improve oneself for the future as a result of thinking about one’s previous mistakes. And what about Janus, the mythical king who the Romans named the first month of the year after in 153 BC? Two-faced (not as in betraying a confidence over the garden fence, but as in “vision”!), he became an ancient symbol of resolutions. As Roman god of new beginnings and guardian of doors and entrances, Janus had a face on the front of his head and another on the back. With one he was thought, by Romans, to be looking back over the previous year come midnight on December 31st, while looking forward at the new one with the other face. With an inevitable eye on good luck, this encouraged Romans to seek the forgiveness of their foes and exchange gifts, such as branches from sacred trees and later nuts or coins with an imprint of Janus on, before the start of the New Year. Since it’s been going on for so long, I wonder whether reflecting at New Year’s instinctive or learned?
So when the clock chimes at midnight tonight, will I be standing, pen and pad in hand, ready to scribble down a list of vows to make to myself for the year ahead? No. I don’t think I will be going for New Year’s resolutions so much as a little New Year’s Revolution. The word “resolution” not only implies being determined to carry something out, but also that I’m so dissatisfied with my lot that I’ve got to make radical changes. That, in turn, seems rather ungrateful. Yes, I know there are things I should change and improve, but I also know I have a lot to be thankful for – a wonderful family, pet and friends; a comfortable home; food and drink to consume; and clothes to wear to keep me warm, to mention but a few. And I thank God for all these things and more.
So instead of making promises to feel bad about if I don’t keep them, I’m hoping to work on a gradual shift: trying to balance things in a way that puts what’s important first; trying to be more patient; trying to improve at doing the things I like to do (not least playing the piano and speaking the foreign languages I started to learn), rather than taking on new ones before I’ve mastered the others; trying to learn more; trying to be more organised, and maybe even tidier (don’t’ laugh!); trying to be more positive. In short, trying to grow as a person and become a better person in general. Quick and strict action won’t help me to achieve this shift, but hopefully continuing to try to be increasingly mindful will bring me closer to doing so.
So on that note, I would like to wish you a very HAPPY NEW YEAR filled with love, laughter and hope!
(Oh, and if you’re anything like the Babylonians, don’t forget to return your neighbour’s spade before tomorrow night!)