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The Origins of ‘Auld Lang Syne’

By Avery Benbow



Should auld acquaintance be forgot

And never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

And the days of auld lang syne?


For auld lang syne, my dear

For auld lang syne

We'll drink a cup of kindness yet

For the sake of auld lang syne


And surely you will buy your cup

And surely I'll buy mine!

We'll take a cup of kindness yet

For the sake of auld lang syne


We two have paddled in the stream

From morning sun till night

The seas between us Lord and swell

Since the days of auld lang syne


For old acquaintance be forgot

And never brought to mind

Should old acquaintance be forgot

For the sake of auld lang syne?


For old acquaintance be forgot

And never brought to mind

Should old acquaintance be forgot

In the days of auld lang syne?


For auld lang syne, my dear

For auld lang syne

We'll drink a cup of kindness yet

For the sake of auld lang syne


Source: Musixmatch



While ‘Auld Lang Syne’ doesn’t contain the most easy-to-understand (or sing) lyrics, its synonymousness with New Year celebrations is widespread, and thus a source of curiosity.  In recent times, this old, Scottish folk song is probably best known for being played at the end of 1989’s When Harry Met Sally, but its history extends much longer than that…


Originally written in the Scots language, or Scottish Gaelic, the title “Auld Lang Syne” can be literally translated to “Old Long Since”.  However, translations reflecting the intended meaning of the saying include, “Times Gone By”, “Long Long Ago”, “Days Gone By”, “Times Long Past”, or “Old Times”.  Additionally, the lyrics of the song are about friends sharing memories over a drink, encouraging listeners to question if old friendships should be forgotten, and as a result, has become an anthem for not letting this occur.  Consequently, it’s easy to see where its connection to saying goodbye to the old year on New Year’s Eve came from, as well as in other events related to farewells, such as funerals and graduations.  This is due to its glorification of reconnecting with old times and the people they were shared with, even if it isn’t specific to a particular event, including New Year’s.


The history of the song’s composition is complex. It was first published by Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1796 (after his death), though he had originally written it down in 1788.  However, though ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and Burns have become synonymous, the words had existed before him, likely in the form of a traditional Scottish folk song with an unknown composer.  This explains the use of the phrase ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and similar words to the song’s lyrics in other Scottish poems, even before Burns.  This includes the poetry of Robert Ayton (1570-1638), Allan Ramsay (1686-1757), and James Watson (1711), whose work in particular is believed to have been modelled off the same folk song as Burns.  Burns himself acknowledged this extensive history which extended beyond him, detailing in a message to the Scots Musical Museum, to whom he sent the song in 1788, that “the following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man,” recalling his conversion of an oral aspect of culture, music, into a written one.


However, these lyrics remained separate from the melody of the song as it is known today, with the music and words only being combined in 1799.  The melody itself is believed to be derived from a Scots folk melody, intended for spirited dancing with a quick tempo, though it was slowed when officially united with the lyrics.  This took place at the hands of George Thomson, as a part of a Scottish song compilation.  This led to it quickly becoming an integral part of Hogmanay celebrations, or Scottish New Year’s celebrations, which was traditionally the more extravagant midwinter celebration in Scotland, in comparison to Christmas.  This is because Christmas was banned during the Scottish Reformation, as the country was under the control of the Presbyterians, a conservative group of Protestant Christians.


Consequently, the song’s joyful yet reflective nature meant its association with the large excitement of Hogmanay celebrations grew over time, with celebrants traditionally singing the song while joining hands in a circle (think Taylor Swift: Eras Tour movie).  This prevalence in Scotland, and also due to the appreciation of traditional folk culture, meant the song eventually spread to and became popular in other parts of the English-speaking world.  This was largely solidified when the Canadian band leader and radio presenter, Guy Lombardo, also nicknamed “Mr New Year’s Eve”, played the song at the end of the old and commencement of the new year, with his band, the Royal Canadians.  This began on December 31, 1929, and became a tradition as he and the band continued to play ‘Auld Lang Syne’ for over 30 years, on radio and later TV stations.  As a result, Lombardo’s 1977 Time magazine obituary states that “First on radio, then TV, Lombardo’s rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ marked the nation’s rite of passage from the old year to the new,” truly immortalising it a New Year’s staple, despite the form of media changing with technology.


Overall, the origins of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ are certainly more complex than that of an average holiday song, but that makes it all the more interesting.  Its numerous forms serve to reflect the media of the time, revealing both how society can evolve so rapidly, but also how no matter how much time passes, we are still all human, and the message of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ still matters to us.


Happy New Year!



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