New Year’s Eve, in much of the English speaking world, is a time of celebration. People ring in the New Year with parties, fancy dress, streamers, noise makers, and champagne. Rowdy crowds gather late at night in city and town squares to be part of the countdown to midnight as the sparkling ball in New York City drops. Exuberant hugs and kisses go to anyone within hug and kissing distance. Bands start to play. People join hands and sway and sing the song that everybody sings and nobody knows. “Should old acquaintance be forgot, mumble, mumble, hum la la, for Auld Lang Syne.” Big finish!
If you don’t know the words, you’re not alone. Most of us don’t know how the song goes beyond the first verse or have a clue what it means. We sing it because everyone else is doing it, because we have always done it, because it makes us feel good to hold onto something we have done every year for years and years as a way to honor the passing of time and new beginnings. (Traditions are like that: often irrational but somehow heartwarming.)
So here’s today’s lesson: Apparently the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, discovered fragments of an old ballad, restored what he could, and added some verses sometime in the 1790s. Singing it at New Year’s is band leader Guy Lombardo’s fault. He heard it somewhere, loved it, and had his band use it for celebrations. Every New Year’s Eve from the 1930s until the 1970s, his band played their version of Auld Lang Syne at midnight to mark the end of one year and the beginning of another. Senior citizens remember it from radio days. Those of us not quite so senior watched Lombardo strike up the band on TV each year while the crowds in New York’s Times Square cheered and celebrated. The tradition has become part of our collective sense of what is necessary for welcoming a new year. New Year’s Eve without Auld Lang Syne would definitely feel like something is missing.
But what does it mean? The song that we’ve been cheerfully mis-singing since we could stay up until midnight is a nostalgic yet hopeful tribute to old friends separated by distance and time; hardly the stuff of noisemakers and streamers. It’s a quiet statement of how very important it is to remember the friends who have come and gone along the way. It seems oddly fitting that in the middle of celebratory abandon, we take a few minutes to stop and reflect on what is most important. The song asks us to appreciate our connections with the people who have shared our journey in life.
For it is those connections to fellow human beings that give life meaning, bind us to our communities, and make us emotionally healthy. Our friends and families support us in hard times and celebrate with us in good ones. Without a sense that there have been people who care about us, past and present, we can become embittered, angry, and depressed. The song urges us to call up memories of old friends and to lift a toast to them, even if they are no longer with us, even if we haven’t seen them since childhood, even if life isn’t the best at the moment.
Robert Burns, I’m sure, didn’t consciously know it, but he wrote a formula for mental health. The capacity to appreciate that life has had good moments with good people (especially when we’re in the midst of bad times and have maybe surrounded ourselves with less than wonderful people) is what sustains hope and health. It is what researchers in psychology now tell us can help us be resilient in the face of troubles and strong in the face of tragedy. By singing the song year after year, we may well be repeating a kind of subliminal message to ourselves and those around us: Remember the good times. Remember and appreciate your friends. Life can be good. For Auld Lang Syne. For old times sake. Happy New Year.
To learn more about the song and to see a good translation, visit this site.