Auld Lang Syne…


Everyone knows the song “Auld Lang Syne” by Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796). We all sing this song on New Year’s Eve when the clock strikes twelve, the ball drops or the fireworks go off. But what the heck does it mean?

The first verse and chorus are understandable, but if you have a look at more verses, you know the song isn’t English. No wonder people don’t understand the phrase “auld lang syne”.  Translated, from the original Scots it was written in, it means “old long since,.” To us English folks, it has more the meaning “like old times.”

Just like everyone else I was singing this too, but why do we sing Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s?

According to “One reason a random Scottish folk song has come to be synonymous with the new year is that New Year’s celebrations (known as Hogmanay) loom unusually large in Scottish folk culture — so much so that Scotland’s official website has a whole Hogmanay section, which notes that, ‘Historically, Christmas was not observed as a festival and Hogmanay was the more traditional celebration in Scotland.’

That’s because the Scottish Reformation brought to power followers of a Calvinist branch of Protestant Christianity known as Presbyterians who didn’t really care for Christmas. Indeed, in 1640 the Scottish parliament went so far as to abolish Christmas vacation ‘and all observation thairof,’ citing its roots in ‘superstitious observatione.’ When theologically similar Puritans briefly ruled England as a result of the English Civil War, they also attempted to suppress all Christmas celebration. But Presbyterianism put down deeper roots in Scotland, leading Hogmanay to displace Christmas as the number one midwinter celebration.

The end of one year and the beginning of the next seems like as good a thing to celebrate as anything else, so Scottish-inflected New Year’s celebrations — including the sentimental and appealingly nonspecific ‘Auld Lang Syne’ — came naturally to the English-speaking world.”

So the Scots like a good party, but why do the rest of us sing it too?

“From 1929 until 1976, first on radio and then on television, Americans tuned in to the New Year’s Eve broadcast by Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians, a big band act led by Lombardo, a Canadian whose parents immigrated from Italy. By the mid-70s, Lombardo’s broadcasts began to face serious competition from Dick Clark’s “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve,” which was positioned to attract younger viewers and emphasized the rock element to contrast with the Royal Canadians’ big band tunes. But for decades, Lombardo owned December 31 — even earning the nickname “Mr. New Year’s Eve” — and every single year he played “Auld Lang Syne” to ring in the new year.” (also from Vox)

Music and culture around the world are influenced by American movies and television, so the whole world saw people singing “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s. “An 18th-century Scottish ballad thus became a mid-century American television ritual, and from there became a worldwide phenomenon — even though almost nobody understands the song.”

Sing it with me, and remember to sing the chorus after every verse. Here it is in its entirety:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne*?

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stoup!
and surely I’ll be mine!
And we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

We twa hae run about the braes,
and pou’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin’ auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,
frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
sin’ auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
and gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak’ a right gude-willie waught,
for auld lang syne.