A modern history of January 1

In ancient Babylon, the citizens used to view January first as a day to make promises to their gods, agreeing to pay off their debts and return what they had borrowed throughout the year. In Rome, around the time of 46 B.C., the Romans recognized January as a time to provide scarifies to their gods and vow to behave better in the upcoming year. In 1740 England, clergyman John Wesley led Christians to welcome the new year with focus and prayer.

In present-day Chicago, I celebrate January first by grabbing coffee with my family. But it’s not just a typical coffee date.

For the past five or six years, my mom, brother, and I have committed to spending part of New Year’s Day huddled around a large, wooden Starbucks table, spreading out our calendars and notebook paper, discussing our many New Year’s goals.

I wouldn’t use the term “resolutions.” Our goals aren’t focused on one tough challenge each; instead our plans are spread out on a map, like destinations, allowing for some wrong turns and scenic routes.

We open by unveiling last year’s list – hopefully not full of dust, if we can find the lists at all – and writing a checkmark next to the goals we have achieved, like looking back at a time capsule. It’s a humbling few minutes.

Next, we take turns announcing and describing our new goals to the group, crowdsourcing for feedback (“that’s not quantifiable enough” or “okay, but what is your specific deadline for that?”), and elaborating on how we can achieve the said goal.

We make categories and set dates. We make detailed charts and graphs. We dream big.

This is usually a two-hour (minimum) event, capped off with an annual photo of the three of us to make it especially official.

This year, the three of us wrote down 52 goals combined.

But the true excitement of the day is not being able to boast our accomplishments or put our noses to the grindstone on the first day. A lot of the elements of the day itself are incredibly important.

We get to reconnect, have accountability, and plan without inhibitions.

Of course, the ambiance of the day is important, too – the aroma of lattes, the baristas calling out drinks in the background, the special office supplies that make the experience extra glittery and organized.
I wouldn’t try to pretend that we meet every goal written boldly onto our foreboding pieces of notebook paper. Although I do keep my goal list on my desk, (nicely folded and holding its own, like a beating heart reminding me of its presence) life happens. I won’t necessarily be able to practice playing my mandolin every week. I won’t necessarily be able to travel everywhere I’ve planned. I won’t be able to quantify the more abstract goals.

But as I glance at my list each week when I have a moment of free time, I will get to work on my goals as I look forward to next year’s conference, and create memories on which we get to reminisce.

Comment on This Story