It’s that time of year when there are articles everywhere about crafting the perfect New Year’s resolutions. They give advice about verbiage to use, the number of resolutions you should have, and how to ensure you don’t bail on those promises. Because our resolutions appear to be mostly about self-improvement, evidenced by the number of people in gyms in January, I assumed they were a fairly recent addition to our holiday rituals. But once again research trumps assumptions and I learned something new.

As long as there have been celebrations for the new year, there have been resolutions. But things change over time, especially the definition of terms. We consider January 1 the beginning of the new year, but that has not always been the case. In ancient Babylon, 4,000 years ago, they celebrated the first new moon as the new year and made promises to do things that would earn the favor of the gods. Ancient cultures generally associated the new year with agricultural or astronomical events.

Undated sepia-toned illustration of the mythical Hanging Gardens of Babylon by Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574), one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Babylon, Iraq by Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574)

Undated sepia-toned illustration of the mythical Hanging Gardens of Babylon by Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574), one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Babylon, Iraq

We take the standard 12-month calendar for granted these days, but it wasn’t always so set in stone. Different cultures had their own calendars based on varying principles, which makes dating historical events sometimes incredibly confusing. However, things started to change in 46 BCE when Julius Caesar consulted with astronomers, mathematicians and philosophers to create a new calendar. Over time, because this Julian calendar was used as the Christian liturgical calendar, its use was adopted as Christianity spread beyond the Roman Empire.

The next big change was in 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII reformed the calendar because it was losing too many days by not having a leap year, moving Easter out of alignment with the March equinox. This Gregorian calendar was adopted by most Catholic countries and spread a little more slowly after that. The British Empire, which included the American colonies, adopted it in 1752. The adjustment from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar caused September 2nd to be followed the next day by September 14th.

I’ve completely simplified the calendar issue here because the science is hugely complex. The millennium caused increased interest in calendars, and probably their accuracy, and two books came out at that time addressing the history and the science of timekeeping. Mapping Time: The Calendar and Its History was written by E.G. Richards and published by Oxford University Press. The author was a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Biophysics at King’s College, London. Marking Time: The Epic Quest to Invent the Perfect Calendar by Duncan Steel was published by John Wiley and Sons. This author is a British astronomer who has discovered asteroids, worked with NASA and written other books about astronomy and history. I haven’t read either book, so I can’t recommend one over the other. If you’re interested in learning more about the history of organizing time, check your local library or search online for these books.

I’ve wandered away from the resolutions question, but that turned out to be pretty straightforward. What really hasn’t changed throughout history is the idea that a new year requires not only celebration, but reflection. For 4,000 years it has been a time to let go of the old and make a fresh start in the new. I choose to believe that the idea of a new year and the anticipation of a fresh start, no matter what that fresh start entails, is human nature rather than an historical ritual from any particular era or culture.

P.S. Russia did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1918. If you want to read an interesting novel about weird calendar dates and false tsars in Russia, I recommend Dmitri by Jamey Cohen. It was published in 1980, but you can sometimes find used copies online.