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Many Americans begin the new year by resolving to change something about their lives. The most common resolutions seem to involve losing weight, quitting smoking, getting more exercise, spending more time with loved ones, improving one’s finances, and lowering stress. Relatively few people manage to keep these resolutions. Many complain that the tradition of making New Year’s resolutions compels them to start the year with a struggle likely to end in failure and corresponding feelings of guilt. How did such a stressful custom come to be associated with the celebration of the new year?

The New Year’s resolution developed among the PURITANS, an early Protestant Christian sect whose teachings emphasized the need for self-discipline, morality, self-examination, and religious conversion. Puritan leaders found fault with the way in which most people celebrated Christmas and New Year’s. They criticized the heavy drinking, public carousing, gaming, masquerades, gambling, and dancing that took place on New Year’s Eve. They urged their followers to abandon these coarse practices and to instead devote the occasion to self-examination and prayer. Devout Puritans observed the new year by searching their souls, pledging to change their ways, and putting themselves right with God. In the eyes of committed Puritans, the turning of the year—which seems to bring with it a heightened awareness of the passing of time and our eventual deaths—provided a natural occasion to review one’s life and amend it for the better.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, evangelical Protestant groups that grew out of the Puritan movement continued to criticize excessive New Year’s Eve festivities. Ardent members of these groups marked the arrival of the new year with pious resolutions. Religious studies professor Leigh Eric Schmidt has recorded several of these resolutions in his book Consumer Rites. On New Year’s Eve in 1846 a woman named Frances Quick resolved to “begin the New Year with prayerful petitions.” She continued:

I feel firm, strong, resolute tonight. I will not seek to glean pleasure from the coming year, or reap selfish and mercenary advantage from it; but will go forth in the strength of God to conquer my own weaknesses, improve the powers which he has given me, and make it my daily study to find some avenue of usefulness to others [Schmidt, 1995,118].

Evangelical Christians began to hold New Year’s Eve WATCH NIGHT services to facilitate the formation of spiritual resolutions such as these and to provide an alternative to the frivolous and often drunken activities that continued to characterize the holiday. These two visions for the holiday, the one sober and religious and the other raucous and secular, contended with one another throughout the nineteenth century (see also FIRST NIGHT).

According to Schmidt, the New Year’s Eve resolution as we know it came about in the early twentieth century when the evangelical Christian custom of making a pious resolution moved out into the broader culture, stripped of its religious content. People began to resolve to improve themselves in various ways — not necessarily spiritual or religious—in the coming year. Often these resolutions had to do with improving one’s health.
In the mid-nineteenth century Frances Quick called on “the strength of God to conquer [her] own weaknesses.” The contemporary custom of making a New Year’s resolution still revolves around the desire to conquer one’s weaknesses, but does not necessarily retain the reference to God. Many interpret the practice instead as a challenge to their own individual willpower. Advertisers are quick to remind us of the dangers of relying on individual willpower alone, however. Weight reduction programs, gyms, and other companies whose services might help us attain our most common goals flood the market with advertisements each January, hoping to profit from our need for help in carrying out our New Year’s resolutions (see also COMMERCIALISM).

  • Watch Night
  • First Night
  • New Year’s Day
  • Puritans
  • Jesus Christ
  • Christmas in Colonial America
  • Amish Christmas
  • Commercialism
  • Depression
  • Decorating


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