Charles Lamb on New Year’s Eve 1820: “No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference.”

If your inbox looks anything like mine this first week of January, it’s flooded with advertisements for gym memberships, discounted vitamins, and fancy planners that “guarantee” you reach your goals. I started wondering when the idea of a New Year resolution became such a widespread cultural phenomenon. The Romantic period seemed like a likely point of origin, given the increasing emphasis on individual experience.

“New Year’s Eve,” one of Charles Lamb’s Elia essays published in the London Magazine in January 1821, does not prove my hypothesis. But it does express an interesting attitude toward the New Year.

Elia begins by humorously likening the New Year to a birthday then transitions to a more pensive and lugubrious line of thought:

“Of all sound of all bells—(bells, the music nighest bordering upon heaven)—most solemn and touching is the peal which rings out the Old Year. I never heard it without a gathering-up of my mind to a concentration of all the images that have been diffused over the past twelve-month; all I have done or suffered, performed or neglected—in that regretted time. I begin to know its worth, as when a person dies.”1

Elia’s tone here is exactly what he attributes to the midnight bells—solemn and touching—as he leads us into a trap. By beginning with the heavenly, almost exultant, bells, we expect to experience the New Year with exhilaration. And indeed, we seem to in the “concentration of all the images” in that powerful parallelism of “all I have done or suffered, performed or neglected.” That dash is a kicker though. The energy of the remembrances are syntactically stultified, then dulled to a painful melancholy “in that regretted time.” Likening the Old Year to a recently deceased person sends us plummeting into still deeper dejection.

(Yes, this was the accompanying sketch in the 1905 edition I found)

Rather than feeling “exhilaration at the birth of the coming year,”2 Elia solemnly understands the New Year as a sign of aging, another step closer to death. This is all beginning to sound very morbid. But really, I don’t think Lamb’s essay is about indulging melancholy or even nostalgia for the old year. Rather, he confronts “this intolerable disinclination to dying”3 that haunts him on New Year’s Eve, and paragraph by paragraph transforms his melancholy and nostalgia into a rapturous celebration of his present life: “I am content to stand still at the age to which I am arrived; I am my friends: to be no younger, no richer no handsomer… Sun, and sky, and breeze, and solitary walks, and summer holidays, and the greenness of fields, and the delicious juices of meats and fishes, and society and the cheerful glass, and candle-light, and fire-side conversations, and innocent vanities, and jests, and irony itself—do these things go out with life?”4 The length of the zestful list with its relishing repetition of “and” overwhelms the concluding meditation on the afterlife with vivacity.

Building on the momentum of this delineation, Elia chastises the tombstones that exhort him to think of death and mocks the dead man’s “odious truism, that ‘such as he now is, I must shortly be.”5 Apostrophizing the deceased, Elia exclaims: “Not so shortly, friend, perhaps as thou imaginest. In the meantime I am alive. I move about. I am worth twenty of thee. Know thy betters! Thy New Year’s Days are past. I survive, a jolly candidate for 1821. Another cup of wine–…”6

What Lamb is ultimately criticizing is the typical attitude of looking to the future at the start of a new year. At first, he counters this anticipatory orientation by reflecting on the past. But this too proves unsatisfying. Rejecting both backward and forward-looking melancholy, Elia declares, “I am alive. I move about.” It is in this statement (not exclamation) that Elia finds tempered delight in the present and can therefore embrace the New Year with playful irony.

So really, it seems like Lamb is anti-New Year resolutions. All that prospection just brings you closer to death. Move about in your present moment, and have another cup of wine, good ol’ Lamb entreats us.

I suppose I should have looked at those earnest Victorians for the origin of New Year resolutions… Maybe there’s a chapter on it in Self-Help

[1] Charles Lamb, The Essays of Elia (J. M. Dent & Co., 1905), 54.

[2] Lamb, 55.

[3] Lamb, 59.

[4] Lamb, 58.

[5] Lamb, 60.

[6] Lamb, 60.

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