History // Where the Hell did New Year's Resolutions Come From?!

Boy, oh, boy have I seen a lot of New Years Resolutions posts recently! Don't get me wrong, I love a resolution as much as the next girl, but then my nerd brain got me thinking... where did it all start?!

No, not 'when did the festive posts dry up', but when did it all REALLY start? All good traditions start somewhere, so what about New Years Resolutions? Time to do some digging...

The most popular resolutions for folk across the globe in 2014 were:

1. Lose weight
2. Getting organized
3. Spend less, save more
4. Enjoy life to the fullest
5. Stay fit and healthy
6. Learn something exciting
7. Quit smoking
8. Help others in their dreams
9. Fall in love
10. Spend more time with family

Pretty standard, right? I could match around seven of those with resolutions of mine this year. (I did not wake up in a respectable 'new year, new me!' state this January 1st...)

New Years is one of the oldest traditions going. I'm talking dating back 4000 years ago in Ancient Babylon, when an 11 day celebration occurred to welcome the Spring equinox. Back then, a king would strip off his clothes and be sent away, only to return a few days later in even better clothes during a grand procession, which would mark the whole 'going back to work' period. So, basically me every year when the sales come around...

Pushing into modern times (ish... the 1500's), it was thought that one could affect the luck they would have throughout the year by what they did or ate on the first day. Giving words of spiritual advice and inspiring change for the year ahead proved a popular past time in the Early Modern period. Church goers in the sixteenth century were greeted with powerful moralising messages yelled down to them from the lectern, as they sat in what one could only assume was a delicate 'post-frivolities' state. Talk about a shock to the system after the cosy comforts of Christmas...

I discovered these satirical etchings from 1792, and the tongue-in-cheek familiarity of them spread a nostalgic smile over my face. Can you get nostalgic about a time period you've never inhabited? Is feeling a nostalgic connection to those lost in history a profound nod to the universality of humanity? Am I just a geek? Yes, quite possibly.

'Resolv'd to be as captivating as possible'

'Resolv'd to bid farewell to Scandal'

What beauties these drawings are! They are from an etching entitled 'A Long String of Resolutions for a New Year - design'd by G.M Woodward', and perfectly capture the often conceited nature of resolutions, just as much now as they were in 1792! 

By the late seventeenth century, godly sermons gave way to a genre of literary advice, often from parents to their children, which began as patriarchal admonitions given as New Year's gift. (Cheers Dad, thanks for a long list of things banned from the fun list...)

The ladies pictured above are displayed in a moment of reflection. It looks as though the first has been reading an unhealthy amount of amatory fiction over the Christmas period, as she declares her desire to be more captivating. (I feel the same after a Glamour binge...) The second lady, pictured with the matronly bosom and prominent features of a village gossip, wishes herself free from scandal. Ironically perhaps, she holds a fan in front of her rather large nose, in what has to be a nod towards the incontrovertible truth of the phrase 'your reputation precedes you'. Is this the Regency equivalent of trying to delete a provocative Facebook post that didn't come across as well as you thought? I like to think so.

'Resolv'd to indulge the World no longer with works of Genius 'till better paid for them'

'Resolv'd to live very abstemious'  

This poor chap on the left is thinking something I'm sure all Creatives have thought at some point in their lives. Why bother?! Why bother when no one recognises that what I've written is beautiful and profound and deserves to be on the front page of every pamphlet (homepage?!) in England! Back in the late 1700's, it wasn't enough to be good at something. Heck, it isn't enough to be good at something now! His torn tailcoat and breeches speak of a hard life, trying to get a rich fella to give him a wage in exchange for saying nice things about him. Is that really too much to ask?! The bloke on the right (and his suspected gouty foot) is resolving to eat and drink more modestly in the new year. I hear ya, rotund Georgian man! Diabetes ain't no fun, especially in the 1700's!

'Resolv'd to be married!'

'Resolv'd to be single'

This little lady with locks a-flowing is resolved to be married. In reality, the eagerness of young girls wanting to leap into matrimony's embrace was no laughing matter. Wholly dependent on a good match for economic security and social standing, (and let's face it, you couldn't rely on your Dad sticking around for very long, what with all the disease), girls would all too often rush into courtship and regret the consequences (think Lydia Bennet). Alas, if you 'played the field', like this chap on the right is resolved to do, your hopes of getting married at all were dashed. No one likes a floosie, especially in Georgian England. Even that ankle she's got on show sends ALL the wrong messages, didn't you know?!

Although New Years Resolutions nowadays focus on self-reflection and improvement, the non-material resolutions of the 1700's were far more diverse and compelling, and often focused on 'improving' others as an act of generosity. For instance, January was the season for paying homage, as well as the re-articulation of hierarchal social bonds. As a result, English folk were given the strangely liberating freedom to speak a little more frankly than usual, as criticism was delicately interlaced within compliments and speeches of affection. e.g. 'Your hair looks so nice today, you can really tell the difference when you actually brush it, you should totally do it more often.'

Hang on a second... that tradition doesn't seem quite lost yet. Anyone else got a 'jellyfish' friend? (10 points if you get that reference...)

So there you have it! A little insight into the history of resolutions. Be more alluring! Avoid scandal! Eat less! Have people appreciate your talents! Get a boyfriend! Don't get a boyfriend! Don't be a gossip! Stellar, stellar advice from our Georgian friends.

Sources from F. Heal - 'The Power of Gifts', The Huffington Post and English Today.

I spent four years studying, adoring and loving eighteenth and nineteenth century English literature and culture. I had great fun researching this post, so if you enjoyed it, please let me know. I'd love to start a monthly or bi-monthly 'History' series. Or 'HiStory'. Or 'Cool History'. Perhaps suggest some different names for the series below...

Happy January!

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