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“Auld Lang Syne”

The New Year’s Song:

“Auld Lang Syne” Written by Robert Burns

“Auld Lang Syne” is the iconic tune likely to be the first song most of the world sings every year at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. Robert Burns’s poem “Auld Lang Syne” is a version of an old Scottish song and now possibly one of the most famous songs in the world. The seemingly global feelings experienced at year’s end, like community, friendship and even a general good will, are certainly felt in the melody and lyrics of “Auld Lang Syne.”

In Scotland, New Year’s Eve is called “Hogmanay.” It has its own rich and revered traditions, not least amongst them are singing “Auld Lang Syne.”  And Hogmanay has another tradition called “first footing,” which is that the first person entering a home after midnight, and not usually having also been there during the evening celebration, is meant to bring good luck for the year. The person who is the “first footing,” or first guest of the new year, also may bring traditional symbols of good fortune—a fruit cake, a “dram of whiskey,” some shortbread, or a lump of coal symbolizing warmth. In Scotland, and many parts of the world, January 1st is in the dead of winter. Giving gifts of these sorts to friends as their first visitor of the new year is meant to bring them luck and a prosperous year to come.

Robert Burns was born on January 25th, 1759. Recognized as The Scottish National Bard, to this day, he is still celebrated, not only by singing “Auld Lang Syne” at midnight on New Year’s Eve, but on his for the traditional Burns Supper. Starting in the early 19th century, the bard has been toasted and honored around the world with a Burns Supper every January 25th. Burns’s birthday is possibly celebrated more fervently than even the national day in Scotland. Burns was born into a family of farmers in Scotland and sometimes called the Ploughman Poet. A poet and lyricist, Burns used the rich material of Scotland’s folk music and stories as inspiration for much of his work.

Below are the traditional words, penned by Robert Burns, to “Auld Lang Syne.” You can find various translations that have changed the words, but there is something in the traditional language which can be lost in translations.

“Auld Lang Syne” – Robert Burns (Traditional Scots verse)

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 stowp!

And surely I’ll be mine!

And we’ll take a cup o’kindness yet,

For auld lang syne.

For auld &c.

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.

For auld &c.

We twa had paidl’d in the burn,

Frae morning sun till dine;

But seas between us braid hae roar’d

Sin’ auld lang syne.

For auld &c.

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.

For auld &c.

Above is the Scots version of the song, and much of it is better left as is, but to understand the sentiment let’s look at the translation more closely. The English translation is below. The words to “Auld Lang Syne” speak to remembrance, and deep appreciation for our friendships, and old acquaintances. The song almost insists you look closely at those with whom you spend your life. It implores you to pause and reflect on the warm gratitude you might feel towards your friends, having travelled another year together.

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And never brought to mind,

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

And days of auld lang syne?”

The middle verse is one worth considering as it relates to happy memories, and their potential loss. This verse, retelling from childhood memories of “paddling” in streams and “running about the hills” tell of how their days were once side by side their long ago friends. So, the eventual “seas between us broad have roared” show the singer and those they once were close with, have parted ways. This verse shows the potential for loss starkly brought to light even while remembering and honoring current friends. I will add the English translation here:

“We two have run about the hills

And picked the daisies fine;

But we’ve wandered many a weary foot

Since auld lang syne.

We two have paddled in the stream,

From morning sun till dine;

But seas between us broad have roared

Since auld lang syne.”

Because of its relevance now and for future New Year’s though, I wanted to share a much lesser known piece by Burns. He wrote to his “first friend,” Mrs. Frances Anna Dunlop on New Year’s Day in 1789. Just as we might now text or call our closest friends a Happy New Year! Burns wrote many letters to Frances Dunlop, more than anyone. In these lines, Burns reflects on the year before and the transient nature of life. There is always the question of what tomorrow might bring, and also hope that all of our plans will succeed in the coming year. Looking forward and back on the night before and on first day of January in the new year we make resolutions about our future.

 From Sketch. New Year’s Day. To Mrs. Dunlop- By Robert Burns

First, what did yesternight deliver?

“Another year is gone for ever.”

And what is this day’s strong suggestion?

“The passing moment’s all we rest on!”

Rest on—for what? what do we here?

Or why regard the passing year?

Will time, amus’d with proverb’d lore,

Add to our date one minute more?

A few days may—a few years must—

Repose us in the silent dust.

Then is it wise to damp our bliss?

Yes—all such reasonings are amiss!

The voice of nature loudly cries,

And many a message from the skies,

That something in us never dies:

That on his frail, uncertain state,

Hang Matters of eternal weight:

That future life in worlds unknown

Must take its hue from this alone;

Whether as heavenly glory bright,

Or dark as misery’s woeful night.—

Since then, my honor’d, first of friends,

On this poor being all depends;

Let us th’important now employ,

And live as those who never die.

Tho’you, with days and honors crown’d,

Witness that final circle round,

(A sight life’s sorrows to repulse,

A sight pale envy to convulse)

Others now claim your chief regard;

Yourself, you wait you bright reward.

In both “Auld Lang Syne” and the verse that he sent to his friend on New Year’s Day, Burns seems to emphasize the importance of friendship, time, and seasonal holidays. He ponders the inevitable procession of time, and the loss of “days gone by” and those who traveled with us before. “Auld Lang Syne” invites you to stand on the edge of the past and the coming year with gratitude for friends, and hope for the future. However you may celebrate the calendar’s turning, I wish you all a Happy New Year!

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