It was a Dennis the Menace cartoon many years ago. Dennis sat on his grandpa’s rocking chair sighing, ‘There goes my new year resolution…’ My love affair with the concept of New Year resolutions began thus.

Though the idea is still very Western, and India doesn’t see much a ruffling of feathers over such phenomena, thanks to that great unifying cultural glue called the Internet, increasingly the religious propriety rights over concepts like Christmas shopping, New Year resolutions and the like are being given up. It’s all a part of the composite culture of our globalized, connected world. The media too is playing its bit in making us all savvy about the annual personal oaths. What with the publicity mileage Bollywood stars gain by making public their resolutions. Kareena Kapoor to go size zero, Shah Rukh Khan to kick the butt of cigarette smoking and the likes. “Celebrities know no better than to goof around at every possible event as a springboard to be talked about. It isn’t the New Year. It can be anything, Valentine’s Day or even National Martyrs’ Day; you’ll find Bollywood eager to eat up headlines,” said a vocal lecturer Jyoti Morey.

Love it or hate it, you will talk about it. The Christian calendar is the most widely accepted one in the world today and hence New Year is everywhere. And with it come the resolutions. It would be a good idea to look at the roots of this tradition. Wikipedia defines a New Year’s Resolution as ‘A commitment that an individual makes to a project or the reforming of a habit, often a lifestyle change that is generally interpreted as advantageous.’ But, where did the tradition begin? Is there a definite start to it? It took some fact-finding before I stumbled upon run by Gary Ryan Blair – the inspiration behind New Year’s Resolution Week. This annual event was founded on the premise, that a single resolution can positively and profoundly create lasting change in your life and help to make the world a better place. What I like best about the website was that the content was under a free license and could be used with due acknowledgement.

Here is what is known about one of the oldest traditions in history:
The celebration of the New Year is the oldest of all holidays. It was first observed in ancient Babylon about 4000 years ago. In the years around 2000 BC, Babylonians celebrated the beginning of a new year on what is now March 23, although they themselves had no written calendar. Late March actually is a logical choice for the beginning of a new year. It is the time of year that spring begins and new crops are planted. January 1, on the other hand, has neither astronomical nor agricultural significance. It is purely arbitrary.

The Babylonian New Year celebration lasted for eleven days. Each day had its own particular mode of celebration, but it is safe to say that modern New Year’s Eve festivities pale in comparison. Except for a very few number of people who can keep track of when the Chinese New Year should be, the majority of the Chinese today have to rely on a typical Chinese calendar to tell it. Therefore, you cannot talk of the Chinese New Year without mentioning the Chinese calendar at first.

A Chinese calendar consists of both the Gregorian and lunar-solar systems, with the latter dividing a year into twelve month, each of which is in turn equally divided into thirty-nine-and-a-half days. The well-coordinated dual system calendar reflects the Chinese ingenuity.

There is also a system that marks the years in a twelve-year cycle, naming each of them after an animal such as Rat, Ox, Tiger, Hare, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Boar. People born in a particular year are believed to share some of the personalities of that particular animal.

The Romans continued to observe the New Year on March 25, but their calendar was continually tampered with by various emperors so that the calendar soon became out of synchronization with the sun. In order to set the calendar right, the Roman senate, in 153 BC, declared January 1 to be the beginning of the New Year. But tampering continued until Julius Caesar, in 46 BC, established what has come to be known as the Julian calendar. It again established January 1 as the New Year. But in order to synchronize the calendar with the sun, Caesar had to let the previous year drag on for 445 days.

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The tradition of the New Year’s Resolutions goes all the way back to 153 B.C. Janus, a mythical king of early Rome was placed at the head of the calendar. With two faces, Janus could look back on past events and forward to the future. Janus became the ancient symbol for resolutions and many Romans looked for forgiveness from their enemies and also exchanged gifts before the beginning of each year.

The New Year has not always begun on January 1, and it doesn’t begin on that date everywhere today. It begins on that date only for cultures that use a 365-day solar calendar. January 1 became the beginning of the New Year in 46 B.C., when Julius Caesar developed a calendar that would more accurately reflect the seasons than previous calendars had. The Romans named the first month of the year after Janus, the god of beginnings and the guardian of doors and entrances. He was always depicted with two faces, one on the front of his head and one on the back. Thus he could look backward and forward at the same time. At midnight on December 31, the Romans imagined Janus looking back at the old year and forward to the new. The Romans began a tradition of exchanging gifts on New Year’s Eve by giving one another branches from sacred trees for good fortune. Later, nuts or coins imprinted with the god Janus became more common New Year’s gifts.

In the Middle Ages, Christians changed New Year’s Day to December 25, the birth of Jesus. Then they changed it to March 25, a holiday called the Annunciation. In the sixteenth century, Pope Gregory XIII revised the Julian calendar, and the celebration of the New Year was returned to January 1.

The Julian and Gregorian calendars are solar calendars. Some cultures have lunar calendars, however. A year in a lunar calendar is less than 365 days because the months are based on the phases of the moon. The Chinese use a lunar calendar. Their new year begins at the time of the first full moon (over the Far East) after the sun enters Aquarius – sometime between January 19 and February 21. Although the date for New Year’s Day is not the same in every culture, it is always a time for celebration and for customs to ensure good luck in the coming year.

Over time, advertising companies have tapped into the frenzy. Looking at the all-time popular list of favourite new year resolutions, one knows why all of a sudden health clubs, spas and gymnasiums have launched aggressive campaigns like ’30-day miracle package’, ‘get slim for that new year party’ or ‘bye-bye to belly fat’ and ‘hello sinewy you!’ An interesting list compiled by the government of the United States of America is available on its website The list numbers the top ten popular New Year resolutions and losing weight seems to be the all-time champion of personal undertakings! Understandably, with rising concerns of obesity plaguing most developed economies, this trend is here to stay. In fact, in the United Kingdom, over a quarter of children population is under the threat of growing obese due to changing lifestyles and little exercise.

India is not isolated from this frenzy though. Fitness and health are a hit with increasingly upwardly mobile middle classes with deeper purses and more disposable income. Ditto with students who make healthy choices to look envious in those hot harem pants. “I suppose every choice we make is healthy. Be it a Subway without extra cheese or the morning Yoga that is now the hang of most health conscious students. And New Year provides us a platform to press the reset button and make a newer, healthier beginning,” said Abhishek Kumbhare, a medical student.

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Health concerns dominate the list with entries such as ‘get into supreme physical shape’, ‘eat healthy food’, ‘reduce stresses’, et cetera. The second most major area where people see scope for personal improvement seems to be their financial health. Getting a better job, raising standards of living, paying off debts or effectively managing day-to-day finances are at the very top of the priority list. Then comes the desire to own assets symbolic to status. Says Vihang Kolhe, a pharmacist, “A new car, a better, bigger house; things that earmark an individual’s entry into a higher income group. A possession that will stand testimony to his/her success. These will be the latest fancies of many in the New Year.” And the mood in India is conducive to such personal ambitions. State banks have slashed loan rates in the sub twenty lakh category and private sector banks are expected to follow suit. Major infrastructure developers are now vying to tap into the small home segment with potential buyers, armed with easy loans having loads of options to choose from in the under Rs. 35 lakh sector.

Even the automobile industry is beaming. For many in India, the festive season beginning from Diwali, following through Id and ending with New Year is the time for making that large investment to buy a car. And with international crude oil prices falling in the face of slow markets, things are looking sunny side up for aspirants of four wheels. All major car manufacturers in India have announced generous price cuts across all segments of cars. So, for those looking to upgrade that old Maruti model, this is the time! 2009 will also mark (hopefully) the entry of the promising Tata Nano – the common man’s car to be priced at around one lakh INR. Though the definite launch is still a mystery, contemplations are rife that we may expect the first batch to hit the roads by the first quarter of 2009.

While citizens are all set to bid adieu to all that went wrong in the year that passed, corporate look resolute to fuel consumerism in the New Year with a slew of offers and campaigns haloing the virtues of spending a bomb on that pearl necklace you always wanted. “‘Comfort Resolutions’ do me a lot of good. They are easy to keep and so much fun! This year, I plan to indulge in some spendthrift pleasures,” told teenaged Kalyani Ingole from Mumbai. Future Group, a large consumer stores cartel launched an ‘assured gifts’ promotion in all its sub entities and boy, did it pay! Shopping is probably the easiest resolution to keep!

That brings us to probably the most difficult part of New Year’s resolutions – keeping them. Some research in this regard shows that though a little over half of the people who resolve to do something are confident about following it through; only a measly 12 per cent actually succeed at their resolutions. A study by Quirkology reveals that: ‘Men achieved their goal 22% more often when they engaged in goal setting, a system where small measurable goals are used (lose a pound a week, instead of saying “lose weight”), while women succeeded 10% more when they made their goals public and got support from their friends.’ Related research also underlined the difficulty in kicking addictions. Especially tobacco. While throat and lung cancer are large-scale killers of males in India, men find it difficult to kick the gutkha or beedi primarily because of scientific reasons. Once the body gets used to tobacco, it has to maintain a certain level of nicotine (a chemical found in tobacco) for optimum function. Any fall in this level kicks a withdrawal symptom like cranky mood, restlessness and a strong urge to reach for another pack. The way to go about it is: easy does it. A gradual reduction from substance addiction is the only way of overcoming it. Then again, easier said than done.

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So, why this high rate of failure? One is reminded of the time tested and now almost unlaughable one liner: ‘Giving up smoking is easy. I’ve done it a hundred times!’ Some blame it on the mass hysteria. “Most people take up unrealistic goals just for kicks, since it is New Year’s Eve and everyone’s doing it. These goals remain unfulfilled, or worse still, are downed and forgotten with two shots of vodka. You never know, the man may have resolved to give up drinking!” quipped Kalpana Talwar, a homemaker in Nagpur.

Research led by Cait Poynor of the University of Pittsburgh and Kelly L. Haws of Texas A&M University was recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research. The study differentiated starkly between ‘necessities’ and ‘luxuries’. The research included three studies to observe the process the individuals went through while making a change. It showed that first the people choose goals and then they form “implementation intentions”, deciding which options and behaviors are consistent with the goals. “The data demonstrates the basic differences among consumers in their tendency to embrace indulgence or restriction goals. Even when pursuing the same goal, high and low self-control consumers create dramatically different categories of goal-consistent and goal-inconsistent options,” the authors wrote.

“For example, you might make a budget, deciding which items are necessities and which are luxuries, buy a diet book, which tells you which foods you may and may not eat, or organize your weekly schedule to include work sessions and time to participate in leisure activities,” the authors say. “Importantly, results suggest that the goal pursuit process can appear to proceed smoothly but in fact be derailed during this second phase,” they add.

It also revealed that the people get tripped up when their goals required them to overcome their default tendencies. The subjects with ‘low self-control’ do better with ‘indulgence goals’ like enjoying purchases more. Whereas the ones with ‘higher-self control’ preferred “restriction goals” that led them to categorize fewer items as necessities, the researchers said. I personally come under the former category, I guess!

On a more serious note, the New Year marks more than just new cars and shopping sprees for many in India. It is a symbol of hope. The rash of terror attacks throughout the country left dents and handicaps in many a psyche and many a valiant warrior rose to confront the challenge. Within the government establishment, lives were sacrificed not only in Mumbai, but also in Jaipur, Malegoan, Assam, Delhi, parts of Uttar Pradesh and all the places where terror struck in 2008. Many citizen groups came forward and vowed to affect a change. Mass mobilization was seen in rallies in Mumbai where the collective resolution of a fed up people showed in the placards and combative spirited slogans.

The youth spoke in a voice that rose above lines of difference. The Muslim community in the country displayed grace and solidarity in toning down celebrations of Bakr-Id in the aftermath of 26/11. And with the December resolution in the Lok Sabha passing the National Investigating Agency Bill and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, one only hopes that the polity of the country has risen above the slugfest to address the grave maladies of this great nation.

On that note, to all our readers, a very happy New Year and hope we all better ourselves and the world around us by every small bit that we can. Cheers! #KhabarLive