Written By: Mariella Reynoso
Every January, I make a list of new year’s resolutions. No matter how many boxes from the prior year I leave unchecked, writing out my wildest dreams on the first page of a new diary remains one of my favorite holiday rituals. As it turns out, this is something I have in common with a medieval Italian merchant, a nineteenth century housewife, and Virginia Woolf.
“I resolve to keep Friday as a day of total chastity…when I must abstain from the enjoyment of all carnal pleasures.” – Gregorio Dati, January 1, 1404
“I will be more firm with the children and not let my temper get control of me.” – Elizabeth Duncan, January 21, 1864
“To be free and kindly with myself, not goading it to parties…To make a good job of The Waves.” – Virginia Woolf, January 2, 1931
Although they belong to very different people from very different times, these resolutions—to practice self-control, be a good parent, treat yourself kindly, and perform well in your job—are not so different from ours. For centuries, people have regarded the new year as an opportunity to improve their lives. As the 1813 newspaper article first to use the full phrase new year’s resolutions states, “There are multitudes of people…who will sin all the month of December, with a serious determination of beginning the new year with new resolutions and…the full belief that they shall thus expiate and wipe away all their former faults.”
As the author’s skeptical tone suggests, resolving to change your behavior from December 31 to January 1 has never been an easy mission. We’ve been breaking new year’s resolutions as long as we’ve been making them, and this strife has been the subject of jokes for decades.
For example, a cartoon from a 1903 issue of a Chicago newspaper depicts a man who resolves to stop swearing at 7:30 AM and gives up by the time he gets to work two and a half hours later.
A newspaper from 1933 made a comparison to fragile Christmas ornaments. “The only things less likely to be intact by December are the swell Resolves we hang on our family tree New Year’s Day.”
Jokes aside, these articles raise some valid questions. What’s the point of making New Year’s resolutions if we know we’re bound to fail? Why has this tradition persisted?
The answer struck me after reading my favorite of these sources, a 1987 news article in which the authors discuss why a novelist named Morris West doesn’t make new year’s resolutions.
“I have accepted that I keep on doing the same things, that I’m not going to change,’ says West. ‘But,’ he added with a hint of jealousy, ‘I really admire the people who keep making new year’s resolutions. I think they are marvellous.”
The reason West was jealous, I think, is that he wished he still believed in his ability to keep resolutions—in his ability to change. In my experience, even when I’ve given up on something, there’s always at least a bread crumb of hope that remains, and that little grain asks: What if I kept trying? Where would I be today? The tradition of making new year’s resolutions has persisted for so long because no matter how many times people fail, no matter how jaded we may become, we never lose sight of the possibility of becoming the people we want to be.
It doesn’t matter that most resolutions are broken, a 1908 article argues. “It is better to resolve and fail than to have never resolved at all…At any rate, you will be the better for trying.”
A Nineteenth-Century Woman's New Year's Resolutions. (n.d.) Kenneth Spencer Research Library, blogs.lib.ku.edu/spencer/a-nineteenth-century-womans-new-years-resolutions/.
Brucker, G. & Martines, J. (1991). Two Memoirs of Renaissance Florence: The Diaries of Buonaccorso Pitti and Gregorio Dati. Waveland PR Inc.
Costa, L. & Turner, P. (1987). New year gives us a chance to leave the junk behind. The Sydney Morning Herald, 14.
McDougall, W. (1903). Old Mr. Profanity Makes A New Year’s Resolution [cartoon]. Chicago
Record Herald, Retrieved from Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, hdl.handle.net/1811/ce0e16d9-3d6b-4763-8c68-fc0549ed93ec.
New Year’s Resolutions: A Pretty Old Practice. (n.d). Merriam Webster,
Olivier Bell, A. The Diary Of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 5 Five: 1936-41. (1985). Mariner Books.
On the Making of Resolutions. (1908). Lawrence Weekly World, 6.
Putnam, N. W. (1933). Sweeping Up Our Shattered New Year’s Resolutions. Montana Butte Standard, 18.