If you Google the question, “Why do people make New Year’s resolutions?”, you’ll find all sorts of reasons: There’s a psychological appeal in setting goals; the ancient Romans used to offer resolutions to the god Janus, for whom January is named; humans love the feeling of hope, etc.
But there’s another explanation: New Year's resolutions play a role similar to religious observance in our lives.
Wendy Doniger, a professor at University of Chicago Divinity School, spoke with me about the symmetry between religious rituals and New Year's traditions. "The idea that you're suddenly going to change is a magical idea," she said. "Religions are in charge of magic for most of us. This [idea] gets into the popular culture as well." She's using "magic" as a sort of sociological explanation for the role faith and ritual play: Religious belief is predicated on the assumption that there are forces beyond our control or understanding that influence our lives (i.e., magic, if you're a sociologist; God, if you're a monotheist).
Although New Year’s traditions aren’t explicitly religious for most people, many of them share the patterns of religious ritual. The theme of the holiday—that this is a time to start over and be a better person—shows up in faiths and cultures throughout history. Wearing sparkly hats, drinking champagne, and promising yourself that you’ll actually go to the gym this year may seem silly, but structurally, these acts have a lot in common with religious observance.
Take the fixation on midnight, for example. “The whole thing about ‘the magic moment’ and counting down—that’s a real religious thing to do,” Doniger said. “Things that happen at the stroke of midnight are always magical things.” This doesn’t mean that people watching the ball drop actually believe there will be magic tricks or miracles at the stroke of 12. But pinning a belief that something will happen in your life—e.g., I really will go to the gym this year—to a change in the physical world is a magical belief: It’s the conviction that cosmic changes, like the cycle of the sun, have control over what happens in people's lives.
Doniger pointed to two examples of this in Hindu culture: Diwali, a festival of lights, which she says has become a pan-Indian holiday also celebrated by Buddhists and Christians; and Holi, a festival of colors featuring song, dance, and people throwing paint at one another. “They’re celebrations of light and of hope, but that’s in a way what we’re talking about,” she said.
She compared these festivities to Carnival, a pre-Lent season of festivals celebrated in many predominantly Catholic and Orthodox communities. The masquerades and parades of Carnival in medieval Italy were renowned; their mystery and intrigue were written about by Edgar Allan Poe, Alexandre Dumas, Stendhal, and others. Today, large-scale celebrations take place throughout Europe, Latin America, and other regions. These festivals are about indulgence and excess, filled with outrageous costumes, loud music, and rich food—all of which bears structural resemblance to the sparkly hats and dance parties of New Year’s. “The idea of being in costume—that you can be someone else, take on a different persona—is another magical idea,” Doniger said.
The idea of a "fresh start" ushered in by New Year's also echoes theological narratives. Following the bacchanalia of carnival is the season of Lent, which is all about abstaining from these kinds of pleasures. It’s a cleanse modeled after the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert in the Bible, designed to prepare Christians for the season of renewal brought by Easter. Of course, that holiday revolves around the theological narrative of sin and redemption: Jesus dies on the cross, only to rise again three days later, thus offering a chance for people to be forgiven of their sins.
Judaism also has a holiday specifically dedicated to celebrating a new year and promising self-improvement. Rosh Hashanah takes place in the early fall in accordance with the Jewish calendar, and the focus is on closing one cycle and beginning the next. The holiday opens a period called the High Holy Days, during which Jews are called to reflect on the past year in preparation for being inscribed into the Book of Life. At the end of this 10-day period, Jews ask for forgiveness from others and from God, hoping for the chance to start fresh in the new year.
Even traditions that seem patently secular—bar-hopping on New Year’s Eve, for example—have a hint of religious flavor. “There are lots of religions in which you get drunk in the ceremony,” Doniger said. “Not Christianity particularly, but lots of other people get drunk as part of their worship. If not drunk, often drugs: The ingesting of mind-altering substances is part of many religious ceremonies.”
But if you fail to find God at the bottom of your beer mug on New Year's Eve, fear not. “Then again, a lot of people just like to get smashed,” Doniger said.