There are numerous different traditional songs associated with Christmas—but there is only one song that comes to mind immediately when people think of New Year’s Eve: “Auld Lang Syne.” It is hard to find a New Year’s Eve party where people won’t leap into singing “Should old acquaintance be forgot…” as the first stroke of midnight sounds. This tradition encompasses the globe, with almost every culture that celebrates New Year’s on January 1st breaking into song with the same set of lyrics.
Where did this song come from? And what do the words “auld lang syne” actually mean? The best place to ask these questions is Scotland. The Official Gateway to Scotland website calls the song “one of Scotland’s gifts to the world, recalling the love and kindness of days gone by, but in the communion of taking our neighbor’s hands, it also gives us a sense of belonging and fellowship to take us into the future.”
The melody of the piece originates from Lowland Scots folk song tradition. It was legendary Scottish Romantic poet Robert Burns (1759–1796) who created the words we know today, however. During the later years of his life, Burns dedicated much of his work to collecting Scottish folk tunes and giving them new life. The first mention Burns makes of “Auld Lang Syne” is in 1788, when he calls the song “a glorious fragment.” Burns wrote new lyrics to the old melody, and used the words “auld lang syne,” which is Scottish for “old long since,” and which can be translated into standard English as “long, long ago” or “days gone by.” The phrase was already known in earlier Scottish poems and folk songs, and appears to be the equivalent of “Once upon a time…” for Scots fairy tales.
Soon after Burns introduced the song to the public, it spread across Scotland as a New Year’s custom, and then to the rest of Great Britain. Scottish immigrants took the song with them as they moved across the globe, and by the middle of the 19th century it was a holiday tradition throughout the English-speaking world. By the close of the 20th century, it was a global phenomenon to ring in the New Year.
We imagine that you’ll end up singing or hearing “Auld Lang Syne” at some point this New Year’s (maybe you’ve already heard it while watching It’s a Wonderful Life).
All of us at Switzerland Air would like to take this opportunity to wish you a happy coming year in the tradition of the song.