A German tip for your New Year's resolutions

Starting off the year with plans to become a better person is a widespread Western tradition. What about the Germans?

Spend more time with the family, eat healthy food, start working out or save money: the list of the Germans' most popular New Year's resolutions would likely sound similar in any country of the Western hemisphere.

Like elsewhere in the world, New Year's resolutions in Germany are a bit like astrology: It's something anyone can talk about, and you'll find people have their own very special opinion on the matter. Expect many of these assessments to be filled with sarcasm. Of course, some people take their list of resolutions extremely seriously, but a bunch of others know that it's also part of the tradition to abandon any New Year's self-improvement plan within the first weeks of January.

After all, they are ideas developed after a week of overeating, and probably drinking too much, with family members who are either way better off in all aspects of their picture-perfect life — or absolute failures. That's obviously enough to inspire more than a few people to start jogging that beer-belly away and take a break on the wurst.

Thank the Babylonians

Humanity has been inspired by the beginning of a new year to try to improve various aspects of their life for ages.

The Babylonians were the first to document their new-year celebrations, some 4,000 years ago. Among the rituals of their 12-day festival held every mid-March, which marked the beginning of a new year at the time, they would promise to the gods to return anything they had borrowed and repay their debts.

Historians see their oaths as the forerunners of today's New Year's resolutions. The Babylonians, however, had more pressure to actually keep their word: If they didn't return everything as promised, they would fall out the favor of the gods.

Oaths to a two-faced god or a peacock

The Romans later set January 1 as the beginning of the new year. The month was named after the Roman god Janus, a two-faced deity — one symbolically looking back on the past, while the other faced the future. People would traditionally make sacrifices and oaths to Janus as part of their new-year rituals.

Such oaths took different forms throughout the ages, including the medieval "peacock vow," during which assembled knights would make a pledge to the noble bird they were about to eat.

The actual modern expression "new-year resolutions" appeared for the first time in a Boston newspaper in 1813. Ever since, articles offering tips on how to make really good resolutions or mocking the fact that most people don't keep them have also become part of New Year's rituals.

A little German touch

If there's one specifically German aspect about resolutions, it's the word itself: Vorsätze. It literally means "before the sentences."

Perhaps that could be seen as the ultimate strategy for anyone making promises to themselves to kick off a fresh year: Don't babble about your resolutions. Before you come up with a bunch of sentences about how you'll start doing this or that, just consider doing it without a word and see what happens.

If it works, you can thank German etymology.

If it doesn't, at least you won't need to explain to anyone why you started smoking again after spending so much time saying 2019 would be the year you'd finally stop.

Author: Elizabeth Grenier

This article was originally published by Deutsche Welle.

January 2019

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