Promises, promises

Published 3:08 am Sunday, December 28, 2008

There are probably not many people who live in Lawrence County who would imagine they have any link to those who lived in ancient Babylonia.

But they might be surprised to learn that coming up in the next few days, there is a definite tie that binds.

It’s called New Year celebrations. Ringing out the old and ringing in the new is the oldest documented celebration by mankind. That’s because observing the New Year first dates back to ancient Babylonia 4,000 years ago.

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Around 2,000 B.C. the Babylonians are the first known civilization to mark the New Year. However, when they did it, it was not by the calendar, but rather by the seasons. Because planting means rebirth, their New Year’s was the first day of spring.

It was not until the Romans less than 200 years before the birth of Jesus Christ was Jan. 1 officially declared the start of the New Year.

Now, here comes the fun part. What is the most visible and most neglected part of bringing in the New Year?

That’s right. It’s New Year’s resolutions.

Those pesky promises we all make to ourselves to lose weight, stop smoking, be nicer to an annoying sibling and make more money.

All of the above and even more are made with the greatest of intentions. Sometimes they are kept for a few days, even a few months. In fact, there are those out there who do make lifestyle transformations.

But for a great many, making a resolution lasts about as long as it takes to write it down on a sheet of paper.

So why do we bother and does even making them, and forgetting about them, worth our time?

“I think it has to do with a new start,” says Diane Mufson, a licensed psychologist with Associates in Psychology and Therapy in Huntington, W.Va.

“Many times when we are given time to start over, we say this year will be so much different,” she said.

Chances to begin again can vary throughout the year from New Year’s to the fall with the starting of a new school year to a birthday. But all bring the promise of making things better than they were before.

“It is part of human nature to recognize that we haven’t done as well as we should have,” the psychologist says. “(A new year) is an opportunity to have a clear demarcation.”

And if modern society thinks it came up with the concept of making resolutions for the New Year, again we have to go back to the ancient Babylonians. They were a step ahead of us, making resolutions a part of their spring “new year” tradition. Interestingly, one of their most frequently made resolutions was the promise to return borrowed farm implements.

The Rev. Robert Thomas, rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Ironton, sees the ritual of making resolutions in much the same light as Mufson does.

“I think all of us know there are things we ought not to do or ought to do and aren’t doing,” Thomas said. “Traditionally the New Year, the beginning of the year, is a time to begin a new start, a new change in direction, a new resolve.”

That is the major reason people appear to feel compelled to make resolutions. However, just as important is the power of repetition and following standing customs.

“The second reason is I don’t know where the tradition started, but it is so deeply engrained in us that people seem to think they have to,” the priest said.

Getting a second chance seems to go hand-in-glove with another tradition of New Year’s — that of having special foods for a New Year’s meal that are supposed to bring luck.

What they are may vary from country and culture. But the most common in the United States are eating black-eyed peas and cabbage and making sure the leftovers from Christmas’ turkey or goose stay in the refrigerator for this meal.

That’s because turkeys, geese, chickens and the like scratch around a barnyard in a backwards motion. And looking backward is not the action wanted for Jan. 1.

As to the all too human tendency to fail at the resolutions so painstakingly made, there’s nothing all that wrong with that, Mufson contends.

“People want to stop smoking and say, ‘I’m going to stop.’ It doesn’t happen the first time or they make progress and it make take some five, six or seven times,” she said. “New Year’s resolutions are a bit like that. We make one. We try. We make a little progress. I think it is a healthy aspect of life that you do get another chance if you make mistakes. You can try again.

“We may not succeed or partially or a little bit. But we can do it again,” she said. “That goes with ‘hope springs eternal.’”