Each year, about 45 percent of people in the United States make resolutions to improve themselves in some way. In fact, modern resolutions are a pretty American idea: they’re part of the striving, individualist identity that is all part of the country’s self-help culture. Yet, resolutions are not confined to just the United States.
We were curious about the resolutions around the world, so we looked at some of the traditions in other countries. Exactly how people ring in the new year changes from person to person, but pretty much everywhere in the world, New Year’s Day is used to reflect on the past and plan for the future.
Going Back To The Babylonians
The tradition of making new year’s resolutions goes back over 4,000 years. In fact, the first resolution-making people historians have found are also the first recorded people to celebrate a “new year” at all: the Babylonians. During a 12-day festival at the start of planting season in mid-March, the Babylonians would make promises to their gods (which were usually about returning objects to their rightful owners).
Moving closer to the present, the Romans set the start of the year on January 1. Originally, the Romans had marked March 1 the start of the year (similar to the Babylonians), but sometime around 46 BCE, it was moved back a few months to take place in January. Part of the reason is the month is named after the Roman god Janus, a two-faced god who looked back at the past year and forward to the new one. It was fitting, then, that on New Year’s Day Romans made promises to Janus that they would behave well in the new year.
While New Year’s Day is not technically a Christian holiday, that didn’t stop 18th-century Christians from holding mass in celebration of it. Some branches of the church held mass on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day to allow parishioners to think back on the past year and resolve to do better in the new one.
All of these traditions mentioned so far are religious, but this aspect has since gone away from new year’s resolutions. Now, resolutions are usually made to one’s self. Of course, that means the only one you’re accountable to is you.
A Brief World Tour
In 2013, Google Zeitgeist put together a project asking people for their resolutions. People from all over the world submitted their answers. It clearly shows that not every country in the world has resolutions; North America and Europe have far more representation than Africa or Asia. And among the countries that do have resolutions, there is plenty of variety in how exactly they’re made. From traditions involving champagne to the very definition of the word, there’s not a clear consensus on what makes a “resolution.” Here are a few examples of resolutions around the world and how they’re done.
Resolutions are baked into American culture. Along with that comes another great American tradition: giving up. Just under 10 percent of resolutions are followed through on, despite almost half of Americans making them.
There’s any number of resolutions Americans can make, but there are a few very popular ones: eating healthier, exercising more, reading more, spending more time with family and learning something new are all very popular. The one thing that unites almost all of them is that they’re meant for self-improvement and personal advancement.
If you translated “resolutions” directly into Spanish, you would get resoluciones. But as the clock strikes midnight on January 1, it’s not resoluciones but deseos (“wishes”) that are made. One tradition among Colombians is that for each chime of the bell at 12 a.m., a person eats a grape and makes a wish. That means 12 grapes and 12 wishes in total (or seven wishes, depending on a person’s traditions). This tradition probably came over from Spain, though it has diverged a little.
These wishes are nothing like resolutions as understood by Americans. You wouldn’t “wish” to eat healthier, but instead wish for good health in the new year. There are other associated traditions that are used for someone’s specific wishes, too. If Colombians want a bountiful year, they can fill their pockets with lentils on New Year’s. If instead they want to travel, they can take their suitcase around the block at midnight. Some even write their wishes down on a piece of paper and carry it with them throughout the year. The year ends with them burning their wish on December 31 and making a new one.
Of all the modern resolutions around the world mentioned here, Italy’s traditions are the closest to the United States’. They have what are called buoni propositi, or “good intentions.” These can be things like quitting smoking, exercising or any number of other things.
Some Italians also have other traditions for the new year. Certain foods are lucky to eat; eating fatty pork is said to lead to fattening wallets, and eating black-eyed peas brings good fortune. Italy is also one of the countries that believes wearing a certain kind of underwear can bring luck in the new year. The underwear color of choice in Italy is red, but it varies from country to country (so make sure to pack a few different options).
Chinese New Year is not on January 1, but the basic concept is the same. The Lunar New Year is a two-week celebration that starts on the first full moon between January 21 and February 20, which all leads up to the Lantern Festival. All in all, it’s a massive holiday, and it causes one of the largest human migrations of the modern world with millions of people traveling to see their families.
As far as resolutions around the world go, Chinese traditions are not at all like American ones. Rather than making goals for the coming year, Chinese people work more at ensuring luck and prosperity. This is done in a number of different ways throughout the Lunar New Year; the color red, a reunion dinner, the number eight and more are all used to attract good things for the coming year.
New Year’s is the biggest holiday of the entire year in Russia. Religion was forcefully purged from the government when the Bolsheviks rose to power, building the secular USSR. That meant religious holidays all but disappeared. And with a Christmas-sized hole in December, Russians started celebrating on New Year’s instead. The tradition goes so far as to have a Ёлка (usually transliterated as Yolka), or “New Year Tree,” which is decorated with lights and topped with a star.
And while many New Year’s traditions are just ported over from Christmas, they still have year-specific fun, too. Like Colombians and people in a number of other countries, Russians make wishes rather than resolutions. They’ll write down their wishes on a piece of paper, which is then burned. The ashes from the paper are then put in a glass of champagne, which many Russians drink at midnight.