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Susan Williams
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Friday, December 5, 2003

New Year's resolutions

Why do we make them when we usually don't keep them?

EDITORS: The following is the second of a series of holiday features from Indiana University.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- "Now," you sigh, "can I sit down?"

"I don't think so," a voice sneers from within. "You haven't made your New Year's resolutions."

Heaven knows we all could improve ourselves, but we're also fully aware that the chances of achieving success in keeping vows to ourselves are slim to none. Why then are we compelled, even against our better judgment, to use New Year's Day as a springboard toward self-improvement?

"Making New Year's resolutions appeals to us in a very basic way," said Nancy Buckles, director of counseling and psychological services at the University Health Center at Indiana University Bloomington. "It's a ritualized way of reviewing the past year and looking toward the future. And it's most appealing because it gives us the opportunity to imagine changes we'd like to make."

New Year's Day is one of our oldest days of special meaning and the only holiday celebrated throughout the world, although not all cultures celebrate on Jan. 1. Most ancient cultures started the year at harvest time, and this custom lasted well into the mid-17th century, when the Dutch came to the New World. They brought with them most of the traditions American New Year's celebrations would adopt.

The Indians of North American forests and plains, however, had been observing the start of a new year long before company arrived. The Creek Indians used the ripening of corn to signify the end of one year and the beginning of another. They burned uneaten grain and other foods of the previous year. Fires in the village were then extinguished and rekindled from the holy fire built by the chief priest.

The Jan. 1 date observed in our culture today came with the Dutch via Rome. The early Roman calendar used March 1 as New Year's Day. But Julius Caesar changed the date to January, a month named after Janus, the god of gates, doors and beginnings. Janus had two faces, one looking forward, the other backward.

New Year's Day has universally represented both a way to divide time and an opportunity to clean house.

Symbolic cleaning is a recurrent theme. In ancient England, chimneys were swept so that good luck could more easily descend and stay. Germans still hold that one should live the first day of the year the way every remaining day should be lived. Among other things, the hausfrau spends extra time making her home spotless. Housecleaning is also traditional in Japan, China and Africa.

Eating pork on the first day of the year became a tradition in nearly every country because pigs root in a forward direction, symbolic of a fat, plentiful future. The custom of making noise with horns, bells and other devices goes back to the ancient practice of using noise to drive evil spirits away.

Making formal resolutions reflects a more modern outlook, recognizing the control we have over our own lives and our power to change. But are we "moderns" any more successful at controlling our bad habits with a resolution than the ancients were at dispelling demons ritually?

That depends on the approach, according to Buckles.

"New Year's resolutions are fun," she said, "but the problem for most people is that resolutions may not be thought out or realistic, so they may be difficult, even impossible, to actualize. A person should make just one or two resolutions and realize unwanted behavior isn't likely to change overnight. And they need a plan. Instead of just stating they're going to quit smoking, they should know how they're going to do it. They can look into the many ways there are to quit and choose what seems most comfortable to them. They can say, 'I'm going to the American Cancer Society for advice on how to quit,' or 'I'm going to do this cold turkey.'"

And speaking of turkeys, don't let that nasty little voice make you into one. As the New Year approaches, put past failures aside. It may help to remember that some traditions require bearing a heavier burden than a resolution.

You could live in Greece. There custom dictates that visitors bring a mossy stone into the house and throw it down saying, "May the purse of the master of the house grow as heavy as this stone." Sometimes the stone is so large that the guest has to carry it in on his back. All stones brought by visitors are gathered into a heap and thrown away after eight days. Just what you need -- another mess to clean up.