Auld Lang Syne: Song Meaning, History, And Why We Sing It On New Year's Eve
An onlooker holds a glass of champagne at a New Year's Eve celebration on Sydney Harbour in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Ryan Pierse\City of Sydney/Getty Images)
At the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, when the ball drops and the champagne corks pop, you will probably hear the familiar strains of "Auld Lang Syne," the unofficially official song of New Year's Eve. Aside from a handful of the lyrics, though, how much do you actually know about this song? Who wrote "Auld Lang Syne"? What does "auld lang syne" mean? And how did "Auld Lang Syne" become a New Year's Eve song?
Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland. (bbc.co.uk)
Who Wrote "Auld Lang Syne"?
"Auld Lang Syne" is one of Scotland's greatest gifts to the world. The average American probably doesn't know who wrote it, but if you were to ask any Scotsman on the streets of Edinburgh, he will likely tell you with pride that the lyrics were penned by Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland who lived from 1759 to 1796. But there may be more to the story.
Robert Burns collected old Scottish folk tunes. (thenationalist.scot)
Who Really Wrote "Auld Lang Syne"?
After Robert Burns published the lyrics to "Auld Lang Syne" in 1788, he also sent them to the Scots Musical Museum, and the documentation he included stated that "Auld Lang Syne" was an old folk song that had been passed down orally (and aurally) from generation to generation. Although even he admitted that he was not the author of the song, Burns believed that he was the first person to record the lyrics on paper, but not even that much is true. Publisher James Watson printed a version of "Auld Lang Syne" in 1711.
"Auld Lang Syne" was actually just one of more than 600 ancient Scottish folk tunes that Robert Burns published to preserve the oral traditions of the Scottish people. Although Burns is known around the world for his poetry, many historians feel that his work preserving Scottish folk music was his most important contribution.
The song is in the Scots language. (glouchesterstage.com)
What Does "Auld Lang Syne" Mean?
The words of "Auld Lang Syne" are nearly unrecognizable as English, and that's because they're not. The song is written in Scots, which was the common tongue of the people living in the Scottish Lowlands (as opposed to Scottish Gaelic, the language of the Scottish Highlands). The literal translation of "auld lang syne" is "old long since," which sounds like an awkward phrase to us but means "time gone by."
"Auld Lang Syne" makes no reference to New Year's Eve. (thejewishnews.com)
What Do The Rest Of The Lyrics Mean?
The original lyrics of "Auld Lang Syne" can be hard to understand unless you're an expert in Old Scots, but they tell a story of old friends coming together to share a drink and reminisce about old times. Time and distance had separated them, the song explains, but they've gathered once again to remember all their past adventures together. Interesting, nowhere in the lyrics is there a mention of the new year.
Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians made the song popular for New Year's Eve. (meadvilletribune.com)
How Did "Auld Lang Syne" Become A New Year's Eve Song?
In 1927, orchestra leader Guy Lombardo rediscovered the traditional Scottish tune, which he had fond memories of hearing as a boy in Ontario, and added "Auld Lang Syne" to his band's repertoire. By 1929, Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians had become popular enough to earn an invitation to perform at a New Year's Eve party at New York City's Roosevelt Hotel. When the clock announced the arrival of the new year, Lombardo and his musicians struck up the nostalgic "Auld Lang Syne." It was so well-received that they repeated their performance at the Roosevelt every year through 1959 and then at the Waldorf Astoria from 1966 to 1976. By then, the song was firmly connected to New Year's Eve.
"Auld Lang Syne" is now a New Year's Eve tradition. (twitter.com)
"Tak A Cup O' Kindness"
The legacy of "Auld Lang Syne" has reached far beyond its Lowland roots. Today, it is as much a part of the American New Year's Eve celebration as the Time Square ball drop. This New Year's Eve, as you raise your glass and embrace your friends to the melody of "Auld Lang Syne," you'll know you're doing so with a very old, traditional Scottish folk tune. In case you want to impress your friends and family with your knowledge of Old Scots, here are the traditional lyrics of the song: