New year, new you?

T’s that time of year when much of the media trots out the traditional New Year features. The usual theme is “New Year, new you,” a commercialised cliche of the New Year resolution, for which target-driven advertising staff canvas the usual suspects for promotions on slimming, dieting, exercise, beauty regimes and a general make-over of house and wardrobe.

The aim, of course, is not to make you or your home look better, but to improve revenue to satisfy the number crunchers. Indeed, dissatisfaction with the way you look, the clothes in your cupboard, the furnishings in your house, the gadgets in your kitchen, the planting in your garden, the digital devices on your desk or in your bag, the car in your garage or even the school to which you send your children, is an essential component of contemporary life, driving the markets, predicated on the assumption that enough is never enough, and that this year’s new model must be more desirable than last year’s.

It is a long way from the idea of spiritual renewal which is inherent in the expectations of the turn of the year. The commercial pressures, combined with the ever-more extravagant firework displays with which world cities compete, have pretty much driven out such ancient traditions as First Footing or Flower of the Well (bringing luck or a handsome husband for the maid who could draw the first water from the local well or spring, after midnight on New Year’s Eve).

The Scots, who take more pride in their history and customs, still have First Footing – the visitor (it should be a man, and traditionally he should be dark and handsome, but should not be dressed in black), brings luck and gifts of food or fuel or money, tokens of prosperity for the year ahead. He should be warmly welcomed with food and wine or whisky. (Fans of Angry Birds may be interested to know that there used to be a Yorkshire equivalent of First Footing where the welcome guest was called the Lucky Bird!)

Fireworks do have their place, because fire has always been part of New Year celebrations – whether it is Burning the Clavie in Morayshire (one of those ancient fire-rituals which involve tar-barrels, like the November – Guy Fawkes or Celtic Samhain – festival of Ottery Tar Barrels in Devon), the Yule Log, which was kept burning in many parts of northern Europe from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night, or Up-Helly-Aa, which marked the end of the Yule festivities in the Shetlands. Fire symbolises purging the old year and welcoming the new.

The roots of New Year resolutions are very deep – it is generally accepted that they go back to ancient Babylon, about 4,000 years ago. The Babylonians, who celebrated New Year in what would now be March, promised their gods to return borrowed objects and pay their debts.

The Romans began each year by making promises to the god Janus – who famously looks both ways, and for whom the month of January is named. It was also the time when the Roman Legions were supposed to swear loyalty to their Emperor, something that was not a mere formality – a failure to swear could signal revolt.

During the high Middle Ages, knights took the “peacock vow” at the end of the Christmas season each year to re-affirm their commitment to chivalry.

The idea of New Year resolutions, as we understand them, is more recent, and may be partly attributed to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who invented a new type of service, the Covenant Renewal Service, in 1740. Now better known as Watch Night services, they were held during the Christmas and New Year’s season as an alternative to holiday partying. Nowadays they are usually held on New Year’s Eve, providing an opportunity for worshippers to prepare for the year ahead by praying and making resolutions.

Of course, we all make New Year resolutions, and with depressing and predictable speed, we break them, but I rather like this quotation which I found while researching this article, from Lucy Maud Montgomery, whose many novels include Anne Of Green Gables: “Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”

Fanny Charles