One of the most popular songs sung on New Year’s Eve is “Auld Lang Syne,” a Scottish phrase meaning “times long past.” The modern words are an adaption of a poem by the poet Robert Burns, set to the melody of a traditional Scottish folk song. Although many people sing it without having any idea what it’s about, and some people seem to think it’s merely a drinking song (“drink a cup of kindness”), in fact it captures an important sentiment – that we should think on days long past as something worthy of remembrance.
Robert Burns was a Scottish Romantic poet best known for his use and preservation of local language, his promotion of republicanism (as opposed to monarchy), and his emphasis on local history. He published “Auld Lang Syne” in 1788 based on a traditional folk song, which had existed at least since 1700. In fact, there is a 1711 song printed by James Watson that resembles the modern tune. However, Burns tightened the lines and added several verses, greatly improving the material he received. It is mainly the version presented by Burns that most people remember, although it includes Scottish words no longer in use. Like many Romantic poets, Burns sought to emphasize far off times and days, which the song and its antique language aptly captures. It was, in essence, the celebration of times past. When Scots immigrated to America, they brought the song with them. It became popularized only in 1929, when bandleader Guy Lombardo played it at a New Year’s celebration in New York City that was broadcast on radio. Repeated ever afterwards, the rest, as they say, is history.
The original song contains several reminders to remember our days long past. Most people are familiar only with the first verse, “Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind.” It is, in other words, a call to remember our old friends, with whom we’ve lost contact and forgotten. The second verse mentions “wandering about the braes” or hills, “pulling gowans” or daisies, and “wandering many a weary foot.” It is a call to remember childhood tramps with friends. The third verse speaks of “paddling the burns” or streams “from morning until dine.” Later verses talk of sharing drinks and shaking hands in friendship. The song has always been a favorite of mine and appeals to me personally, for it reminds me of wandering with my brother about the woods near our house, of boating and swimming on the Tennessee River, and spending time with my military friends. Although we sometimes forget those wonderful days of youth, we should try to remember them whenever we celebrate each new year.
In fact, this is what the song is really about. Some people seem to want us to forget how things used to be, whether it’s forgetting the heroes of our youth and our love of nation or simply moving on personally and growing up. Some want us to forget the past in favor of a future utopia that is unknown. Yet we should never forget our friends and the times we had, any more than our nation should forget our history. By this I am not trying to gloss over evils of the past. Our history includes good and evil deeds, sometimes made by the same men, just as our lives may include things we want to forget, such as divorces, death of parents, or poverty. Yet there are good memories among the bad that are worthy of remembrance, and both good and bad events helped to form our character. Our histories make us who we are, as individuals and as a nation. People who cannot remember the past are diagnosed with amnesia and are considered mentally ill because people without a past are unstable and often unable to function. We need a past and a history to help us remember that we are connected to others and that life goes on. Some may want you to grow up and forget your childhood stories, games, and dreams, but those memories are what make you who are. Some may want you to forget a time before 2020, but those of us who lived then know that even in the midst of hard living there were good times. Some may want you to forget your childhood friends in favor of new alliances, but we all should remember how we loved our neighbors even when we disagreed with them. We should remember how we played hard and loved each other even harder. These are the connections that matter, not the parties or acronyms we join.
This New Years, as you sing “Auld Lang Syne” as the old year passes, get together with your old acquaintances. Drink a cup of kindness. Remember once more your friendships and connections to the past. Remember how you wandered and had fun. Remember that we all have a history that is both good and bad, and this history is what makes us who we are. Be thankful for all you’ve been through. If you do, you will be happier and better off than if you act like the past never happened.
© 2021 J.D. Manders