Every time I watch the New Year’s Eve “ball drop” at Times Square, NY and they start to sing Auld Lang Syne, I find myself wondering “why is everyone mumbling the words after the first verse?” Does anyone really know all the words? Does anyone even know the meaning of the song? In the 1989 romantic comedy “When Harry Met Sally,” Billy Crystal’s baffled Harry wonders, “What does this song mean? My whole life, I don’t know what this song means. I mean, ‘Should old acquaintance be forgot?’ Does that mean that we should forget old acquaintances? Or does it mean that if we happened to forget them, we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot them?” Meg Ryan’s character Sally reasons “Well, maybe it just means that we should remember that we forgot them or something. Anyway, it’s about old friends.”
Well, it’s not quite that simple. Auld Lang Syne translates closest as “those long gone who are dear to us”. It can refer to the experiences of days long gone as well as to people long departed. The song contains many drinking references as well as angst over separation. There’s also a line about reaching out your hands to those in need and about being a trustworthy friend. Where did the song come from anyway, and how did we decide it would become the official New Year song?
The words of Auld Lang Syne are attributed (mostly) to Scotland’s National Poet Robert Burns (1759-1796). Burns composed some of the lines himself, transcribed other lines as told to him by an elder Scot, and “collected” lines for the first verse and chorus from the ballad “Old Long Syne” first printed in 1711 by Scottish Editor James Watson in his “Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems”. The musical tune we’re most familiar with is attributed to a old strathspey (dance) tune “The Miller’s Daughter” played in rapid 4/4 time at between 120 and 160 beats per minute. The band Flogging Molly comes to mind. Singing Auld Lang Syne on Hogmanay (New Years Eve) became a Scots tradition after the publication of Burns’ poem. The tradition spread throughout the British Isles and naturally made its way to North America when the Gaels immigrated here. The Canadian-American bandleader Guy Lombardo is credited with popularizing Auld Lang Syne internationally when his band played the song during a radio broadcast of a live performance at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York in 1929. They played “Auld Lang Syne” just after the clock hit midnight and instantly created a New Year’s tradition.
Life is complicated. Some look at life like it’s a 6 foot deep rut. Others live flying 6 feet above it all. Most of us live in the land in-between. Some acquaintances and experiences are best forgotten; some can be forgotten quickly while others never quite leave us completely. Happy memories, good friends and loved ones are welcome companions as we travel onward in life. Survival, and dare I even say “joy”, comes from realistic understanding balanced with realistic expectations expressed through thankfulness; contentment vs. complacency. We’ve all been through tough times and good times; neither lasts forever, but the legacies of our relationships and the good we accomplish together will endure. We should not forget that. Let’s join hands and go forward together into 2016, and, when we sing Auld Lang Syne, let’s not do so with anxiety. May the wisdom gleaned from our pasts make us richer in the present and more hopeful about the future. Happy New Year!
© 2015 Curt Savage Media
Very informative — I learned a lot about Auld Lang Syne.