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In the last few hundred years in the West, we may observe the following progression: Under the influence of secularization, what for centuries had been wrapped in the trappings of faith gets transformed into routine worldly convention—without a religious aroma.

Here are some examples:

  • The holy birthday of baby Jesus becomes the season of Santa Claus, airborne reindeer, and ornamental pagan pines raised in living rooms over wrapped gifts of toys, clothes, and jewelry.
  • Holy Easter Sunday, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, becomes a tableau for Peter Cotton Tail and a basket full of dyed multi-colored hard-boiled eggs and yellow Peeps.
  • The feast day of St. Valentine, a third-century Roman Christian martyr, becomes the venue of romance, heart-shaped boxes of mixed chocolates, and a clutch of twenty-four of the reddest roses anyone ever saw.
  • The feast day of St. Patrick, a fifth-century British evangelist to Ireland, becomes an occasion to wear lime-colored clothes, drink green beer, and march down Main street in a rowdy banner-waving parade only to throw up in a city gutter.
  • All Hallows’ Eve, the night before All’s Saint’s Day, becomes a carnival of costumes and grotesqueries with children begging for candy door to door.

The New Year is no different. Beginning with an air of religiosity, it eventually and inescapably becomes a secularized convention in the Western world.

Let’s look specifically at the New Year

In most cultures throughout history, a New Year was attended by sacred sentiment and religious rite and festival. People reviewed their behavior from the last year and swore to the gods that the New Year would bring rehabilitation and vital recommitment to decency and piety. 

That was the religious tenor of the original New Year, attended with rituals like animal sacrifices or the burning of candles, and then with festivals of food, wine, and mirth. Gods would bring favor in the New Year to those who actually performed what they had resolved to perform. And the gods looked unfavorably upon those who could not keep their New Year’s resolutions.

Though the first documented evidence of the words Rosh Hashanah do not appear until 200 CE, there is some evidence that ancient Jews celebrated a New Year several hundred years before that. In Hebrew, rosh means head and shanah means year—and thus the head of the year becomes New Year, and the new year began in the fall. At Rosh Hashanah ancient Jews reflected on their wrongdoing in the past year and made promises to improve in the coming New Year.

Circa 100 BCE, the Romans added our first month to the calendar, calculating that month on the first sighting of a crescent moon in the West after sunset following the winter solstice. In 46 BCE, Julius Caesar named the first month January after the god Janus. And it was Caesar who chose January 1 as the first day of a New Year. It was fitting that the two-faced god Janus was the patron of the first month, since with his two visages he was able to look backwards at the departing year and forward at the year to come. New Year’s promises to amend one’s ways were made to the god Janus, and Janus could be expected to reward all keepers of those promises.

Christianity arose within the Roman empire in late antiquity and Christian leaders were in no hurry to overtly adopt pagan-Roman ways. And so Christians did not readily accept January 1 as day one. Instead, Christians marked the New Year on a notable day in their own evolving sacred calendar. And so, for a long while New Year’s Day was Good Friday before Easter Sunday.

It took many hundreds of years before all of Christian Europe accepted January 1 as day one of a New Year. And when Christianity did adopt January 1, it was not because of Julius Caesar; it was because January 1 was the feast day and memorial for the circumcision of the baby Jesus!

In medieval Europe, a New Year brought knights together to make vows reaffirming commitments to piety and chivalry. “Watch Night Services” occurred on New Year’s Eve where attendees were urged to reflect on past mistakes and correct them so as to live less sinful lives in the coming year. Such occasions were seen as renewals of covenantal commitments to God and Church.

Where did the practice of New Year’s ‘resolutions’ come from?

In the seventeenth century, Anne Halkett, a British author of religious books, was the first to use the actual word “resolutions” when writing of pious decisions she’d made for the coming New Year. In the eighteenth century, American theologian Jonathan Edwards, borrowing Halkett’s word, detailed some seventy personal commitments he made, writing them up thus: “Resolved: Never to speak evil of anyone.”

But an emerging secularization during this period had a corrosive effect on faith, and the religious quality of New Year’s Day and its famous resolutions waned, even in Jonathan Edwards’ own century.

In the eighteenth century, we can detect the beginnings of secularization of the New Year in writers who satirized bogus resolutions: Doctors resolved to charge moderate fees. Statesmen resolved to think only of the nation at all times. Citizens who sinned all of December resolved to take steps for self-improvement in January. All lies and jest.

By the nineteenth century, raucous New Year’s Eve parties, propelled by whiskey, even in the teeth of a potent religious temperance movement, vied with religious watch nights and churchly covenant renewals. By the twentieth century, the secularization of the New Year was complete.

Past and present

There is something admirable in humanity making resolutions for a New Year. The aspirational intent to tune oneself to a higher morality is a hopeful human feature. It speaks well of the possibility of refining one’s conscience and behavior.

And so there’s a bit of a come down between antique religious resolutions and our own modern resolutions. We smile while noticing comical differences between past and present, and it is a wistful smile. Earnest desires to mend sin have morphed into earnest desires to diet, drink less, exercise more, save money, and be nicer: these are the first five resolutions now topping the lists in Western nations.

Even though the New Year has been secularized, there is one constant between old religious and modern secular resolutions, and it has endured over the entire multi-thousand-year history of resolution making. That constant is this: all resolutions, religious or secular, entail the fight against old habits. And from antiquity to the present, more often than not, sadly, old habits win. 

But you know what hope does? It springs . . .

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J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religion since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic journals and the LA Times, Huffington...