recess radio program

    by John Cech

If you haven't made your new year's resolutions yet, it's not too late. Especially if you consider that the original new year's festival, four thousand years ago in ancient Babylon, took place over nearly two weeks. During this time, the thing you simply had to do, besides partying with your family and friends, was to return any tools that you had borrowed during the previous year. In particular, farm tools. They would be needed because New Year's was originally celebrated during the springtime, around the vernal equinox. The change that regularized the New Year in the West and started it in January was ordered by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C., when he established the calendar that's named after him. January itself was named after the two-headed god, Janus, who symbolically looked backward on the previous year and forward to the future.

The idea of making resolutions gained real traction in this country in the latter part of the 18th century, prompted by the self-improvement literature of social philosophers like Benjamin Franklin. Franklin never did finish the book about the Art of Virtue that he worked on throughout his life, but he never gave up the struggle. Still, he left us with one of those well-worn, ever-timely resolutions: "Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man."

As a child, I was told to write down my resolutions at the beginning of each new year. Otherwise, I wouldn't be taking these promises seriously, I was told. The Japanese have a variation on this idea. They believe that you should make the most beautiful marks you can on paper, in the form of a poem or a pearl of wisdom, written in the artful calligraphy that was part of a traditional Japanese education. Thus one set the highest tone for the new year. But there is little that is lofty about the resolutions suggested by the American Academy of Pediatrics. How can you be inspired by resolutions like "I will clean up my toys . . . . brush my teeth twice daily . . . drink lots of milk, and limit soda and fruit drinks?" Or "I will spend a couple of minutes every morning and afternoon applying sunscreen before going outdoors, even in winter?"

According to Time Magazine's Time for Kids, which polled children about their resolutions, by far and away the leading resolution was "get better grades." Coming in a distant second was "be nicer to my brother or sister," which just edged out "eat less junk food, get more sleep, and get more exercise." Whatever happened to resolve like this -- again from Franklin: "Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing." But if that's a stretch, one can always go back to the simplicity of the old Babylonian custom and bring back the borrowed rakes and shovels.


Copyright 2007 John Cech

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."