Old Long Since
Tonight, all around the globe, English-speaking people will gather to ring in the New Year. They’ll count down the final seconds of 2012, and as the clock strikes midnight they’ll shout out to the Gods their hopes for a Happy 2013. Joyfully, they’ll turn and try to find someone nearby to kiss for good luck. And then they will all join together in song, and the song they sing will be the same the world ’round – whether they are gathered in hole-on-the-wall taverns, elegant black-tie affairs or something entirely in between. But none, I think, ever sing it as proudly or with as much gusto as I or the other members of my family. For Auld Land Syne – that universal benediction of calendars and resolutions alike – is something of a family heirloom for me.
The man who penned it, Robert Burns, the first of the Romantic Poets, was my eight-times great grandfather.
I say “penned,” of course, because elements of the song predate my many-greats grandfather’s efforts. Burns’ Auld Lang Syne is credited as having been “written” in 1788. However, the James Watson ballad Old Long Syne from 1711 is remarkably similar:
Should Old Acquaintance be forgot,?
and never thought upon;?
The flames of Love extinguished,?
and fully past and gone:?
Is thy sweet Heart now grown so cold,?
that loving Breast of thine;?
That thou canst never once reflect?
On Old long syne.
On Old long syne my Jo,
On Old long syne,
That thou canst never once reflect,
On Old long syne.
Burn’s version was in fact a variation of a variation. He took down and reworked a song he heard an old man singing in a tavern one night, and sent the work to the Scots Musical Museum. We can assume he had never come across Watson’s ballad, because he guessed in that correspondence that nothing like it had never been put to paper. Burns was not a musician and so he did not include a score to the lyrics. Because of this it is unknown if the melody we sing today is the same – or even similar – to the one that caught Burns’ ear that night back in 1788.
We do know that at some point in mid-nineteenth century Scotland, it became customary to sing Auld Lang Syne on Hogsmanay. (Hogsmanay is a Scottish New Year’s celebration, which has pre-Christian roots as a ceremony to welcome the winter solstice.) Soon after that the custom spread throughout the British Isles; from there it emigrated with Scots, Brits and the Irish around the world. By the 1890s there are reports of it being sung at New Years Eve parties in Australia, continental Europe, and the United States.
Burn’s lyrics were written phonetically in the Scottish idiom, and because of this the meaning of the song is often lost to those that sing it. The title itself is, literally translated, Old Long Since. The meaning is more similar to our modern idiom, Days Gone By. Additionally, the word acquaintance has a much different meaning now than it did then: in Burns’ time, it referred to strong, long-term friendships and relationships.
In fact, roughly translated to modern English, the lyrics of Auld Lang Syne reads something like this – with the initial questions being rhetorical ones:
Should our oldest friends be forgotten, and never remembered?
Should we forget old friends and the time we spent together?
For those days gone by, my dear, for those days gone by.
We’ll still drink to those days gone by.
And of course, you’ll buy your pint, and I’ll buy mine
And together we’ll drink to days gone by
We two have run around the hills and picked the fine flowers,
But now we’ve wandered and become weary since those days gone by.
We’ve paddled the stream from morning till dusk,
But now the seas between us are broad since days done by.
And here – take my hand my good friend, and give me yours as well,
Will drink to one another’s good health and fortune for the sake of days gone by.
It is, I think, the perfect sentiment with which to both look back at the year past and look ahead to the year ahead: Remembering those that we love – those with whom we’ve laughed and struggled, cried and celebrated – and making a commitment to honor them and their memory as we continue into the uncharted waters of the future.
And perhaps this is just as good a place as any to say to all of you, thank you from the bottom of my soul for this past year. It’s been wonderful and awesome, in every meaning of those words. And to everyone here, here’s to an amazing 2013 – I can’t wait to see what it brings for all of us.
For auld lang syne, my dears. For auld lang syne.
[Note: The page in the photo above is taken from this book, seen just below. It is a an American edition of Robert Burns’ poetry, published in Boston in 1866. It has been in my family for generations, and was handed down to me by Burns’ seven-tems great grand-daughter, Helen Burns Kelly – my mom.]
 And, because they will have consumed a fair amount of alcohol at that point, they’ll probably be hoping to cash in on that good luck with the person they’ve just kissed in the next hour or so.