Well, it’s that time again: a new year and with it, a fresh start! Have you made any New Year’s Resolutions for 2023? If so, you’re participating in a tradition going back at least two centuries—if not longer. Let’s have a look at what the Victorians thought about New Year’s Resolutions.
Just like today, our 19th century ancestors had no shortage of determination to improve themselves every January the first—and just like today, no shortage of doubters and naysayers lampooning their efforts.
Writing in The Idler in 1893, Journalist George R. Sims lamented,
You can no more by resolution alter the shape of your habits than you can by resolution alter the shape of your nose. For nearly twenty years, every New Year’s Day, I have resolved to give up smoking, that I would take more exercise, that I would go to bed early, that I would see the Tower of London, that I would not lose my temper, that I would face trouble instead of running away from it, that I would—but everybody knows these New Year’s resolutions. They are common property. I haven’t kept one of them. Nobody ever does.
Sound familiar? How fascinating that in 150 years, not only has the practice of making resolutions remained the same–but so have the very resolutions themselves! Diet, exercise, quit smoking…
I find New Year’s Resolutions tremendously motivating, and take pride in proving Sims wrong: I’ve kept plenty of mine (I’ve even seen the Tower of London. Take that, Naysayer!). My birthday falls in the middle of the year, so I’ll often recommit in July. That’s a helpful tip if you find New Year’s Resolutions hard to keep: try Birthday Resolutions instead (I call them “Annual Personal Challenges”) instead. Ok, so that might not work as well if your birthday is in early January… This year I’m focusing on the classics: eating better, getting more exercise, and being more organized.
So, just how long have we been committing to self-improvement with the New Year?
Well, as with many holiday traditions, we don’t really know for sure. Merriam-Webster tells us that Scottish Diarist Anne Hackett included a page entitled “Resolutions” on 2 January 1671—suggesting that the practice was a familiar one at the time. In his 1803 New Year’s Day sermon, Joseph Crossman, a pastor in Connecticut, urged his flock to adopt “solemn resolutions” to be more devoted to the church, saying “Now, on the beginning of this new year, is a proper time.” And the term “New Year’s Resolution” hit a sudden sharp uptick in use around 1895 (I would love to dig into that a bit and figure out why!):
Oxford University takes a fun look at how primary sources of the period featured the idea of New Year’s Resolutions.
So, whatever your plans for the year, take heart in knowing that whether you keep—or don’t keep—your own New Year’s Resolutions, you are in good and long-lasting company!
Happy New Year!