Why Do We Make New Year's Resolutions?

catherine_jones/iStock via Getty Images
catherine_jones/iStock via Getty Images

Every time a new year rolls around, people set out to better themselves. They promise they will lose weight, find a new job, or maybe even take that vacation they've always talked about. But why do we make these promises to ourselves, and where did this tradition come from? And why does this tradition live on when so many people fail to keep the resolutions they make? Well, we can start by blaming the ancient Babylonians.

Around 4000 years ago in Babylon, the earliest recorded celebration honoring the coming of a new year was held. Calendars weren’t as they are today, so the Babylonians kicked things off in late March during the first new moon after the Spring Equinox. The collective ceremonial events were known as the Akitu festival, which lasted 11 days. The festivities were dedicated to the rebirth of the sun god Marduk, but the Babylonians made promises in order to get on the right side of all of their gods. They felt this would help them start the new year off on the right foot.

Resolutions continued on with the Romans. When the early Roman calendar no longer synced up with the sun, Julius Caesar decided to make a change. He consulted with the best astronomers and mathematicians of the time and introduced the Julian calendar, which more closely represents the modern calendar we use today. Caesar declared January 1 the first day of the year to honor the god of new beginnings, Janus. The Romans celebrated the New Year by offering sacrifices to Janus.

To this day, the traditions of the ancient Babylonians and Romans continue on around the world. So much so that Google launched a Resolution Map in 2012 where people could add resolutions and see others adding theirs in real time. However, no matter how many people participated in Google’s project, the numbers are bleak when it comes to the amount of people who maintain their resolutions; only 9.2 percent of people are successful in sticking them out.

The most popular resolutions:

    • Lose weight/eat healthier
    • Get organized
    • Save more money
    • Quit smoking
    • Enjoy life
    • Spend more quality time with close friends and family members
    • Get—and stay—healthy
    • Learn something new
    • Help others pursue their goals
    • Find love

If those failed resolutions above look familiar and remind you that the whole concept is a bust, or if they inspire you to create your own list of promises for 2020, just remember that this tradition is destined to live on. We have 4000 years worth of history telling us so, and that's a statistic that's hard to argue with.

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Why Do We Celebrate Christmas on December 25?

If Jesus wasn't born on December 25, does this rule still apply?
If Jesus wasn't born on December 25, does this rule still apply?
Jon Tyson, Unsplash

Each December, Christians throw a collective birthday bash to celebrate the anniversary of Jesus’s arrival on Earth. But without a birth certificate—or any other official record of his actual birthdate—in existence, December 25 seems like an arbitrary day for all our Christmas traditions. So how did early observers choose it?

When Was Jesus Really Born?

Since the Bible doesn’t name a month or even a season for Jesus’s birth, historians have relied on other context clues to estimate when it occurred. Shepherds tend sheep in the Nativity story, which people often cite as evidence that Jesus was more likely born during the spring. Others argue that Israel’s mild winter temperatures allow sheep to graze even in December. According to Slate, it’s also possible that sheep set aside for religious sacrifices may have been given free rein, frigid night or not.

The Adoration of the Shepherds by Sebastiano Conca, 1720.J. Paul Getty Museum // Public Domain

One clue pointing specifically to December 25 comes from the story of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, who approached old age without having given birth to any children. One day, her husband, a priest named Zacharias, was burning incense in the temple when the angel Gabriel appeared to him with good news: Elizabeth would bear a son. Early Christians guessed that Zacharias was probably in the temple for Yom Kippur, which they believed always took place on September 24 (it actually shifts year to year based on the Jewish lunisolar calendar). Nine months after September 24 is June 24, so they chose that as the birthdate—and feast day—of Elizabeth and Zacharias’s son, John the Baptist. When Gabriel later visited Mary to let her know that she’d bear a son, too, he mentioned that Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy. That means Jesus would’ve been conceived in late March, and born in late December—the night of December 24, to be exact, or the early hours of December 25.

Another theory suggests that Christians arrived at December 25 based on an ancient Jewish idea that prophets die on their birthday. During the 3rd century CE, theologists like Tertullian and Hippolytus dated Jesus’s crucifixion to March 25, since it happened around Passover. But to Sextus Julius Africanus, it was less about when Jesus was born and more about when he first came to Earth; in other words, he believed Jesus’s death and conception coincided on March 25, and thus his birth occurred on December 25 [PDF].

The Early History of Christmas

Even if Zacharias was in the temple on September 24, Gabriel did visit Mary exactly six months later, and Jesus was born right on his due date, it’s still possible that we celebrate Christmas on December 25 for a different reason altogether.

While 3rd-century Christians were busy worshiping the Son of God, some of their pagan counterparts were busy worshiping the Sun God. In the 270s, Roman emperor Aurelian popularized the cult of Sol Invictus, or “The Unconquered Sun,” whose feast day was celebrated on December 25. According to John Carroll University history professor Joseph F. Kelly, other Romans revered a Persian god, Mithra, whose feast day also may have fallen on December 25. There was also Saturnalia, an annual Roman festival that ran from December 17 to December 23. In short, many ancient Romans were well-accustomed to celebrating something in late December by the time Christianity entered the mainstream.

A painting of Saturnalia festivities by Antoine Callet, 1783.Themadchopper, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That happened during Constantine’s rule over Rome in the early 4th century. In 313, Constantine and his fellow ruler Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, which basically legalized Christianity and condemned the ongoing persecution of anyone who practiced it. Constantine was a devout Christian himself, and he spent the rest of his reign spreading the religion throughout the empire. The first known record of December 25 as Jesus’s official birthday is from 336, the year before Constantine died. Because it’s mentioned in a volume containing other important religious dates, some have assumed that a celebration probably occurred on that day, and 336 is often cited as the first known “Christmas.”

Whether Christians celebrated Christmas on December 25 before 336 may forever be unknown, but we do know that the custom quickly caught on (spending the holiday watching A Christmas Story marathon wouldn't come until much later). By the end of the 4th century, Christian bishops were holding Christmas Mass all over Rome, and pagan festivals soon fell out of fashion. The fact that Christmas essentially replaced those earlier December traditions could be a coincidence, but some believe it was by design: Since Romans were already primed for parties on December 25, the Church could’ve been trying to co-opt a built-in subscriber base.

In summary, the origins of Christmas are just as subject to interpretation as Jesus’s actual birthdate—so feel free to play Christmas music whenever you want.

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