Why We Sing “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve? What Does it Mean?

Why We Sing “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve? What Does it Mean?
Génesis Galán
Auld Lang Syne History

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

Every year at midnight on New Year’s Eve we sing “Auld Lang Syne,” but most of us don’t know why or what it means. The song is sung all over the English-speaking world despite its nearly incomprehensible syntax and vocabulary, yet it evokes a sense of belonging, fellowship and nostalgia. How did an 18th century Scottish ballad become synonymous with New Year’s Eve?

History

A Scottish Tradition

“Auld Lang Syne” is traditionally used to bid farewell to the old year at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. Outside the U.S., particularly in England and Scotland, it is also sung at funerals, graduations, memorials, weddings, and as a farewell or ending to other occasions.

New Year’s is a big deal in Scotland, bigger than Christmas. In the 16th century the Scottish Reformation Parliament broke with the papacy and embraced a predominantly Calvinist national church that was strongly Presbyterian in its outlook. In 1640, an act of Parliament abolished Christmas, known as Yule in Scotland. The holiday was not restored until 1711 by another act of Parliament.

At Hogmanay (New Year’s celebrations) in Scotland, people usually join hands to form a great circle around the dance floor and sing “Auld Lang Syne.” At the beginning of the final verse, they cross their arms across their chest so that the right hand reaches out to the person on their left and vice versa. When the tune ends, everyone rushes to the middle, still holding hands.

History of “Auld Lang Syne”

In 1788, Scottish poet Robert Burns sent a poem to the Scots Musical Museum, noting that it was an old song but that he’d been the first to record it on paper.

“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.”

Robert Burns

The phrase “auld lang syne” is used in similar poems by Robert Ayton (1570–1638), Allan Ramsay (1686–1757) and James Watson (1664-1722), as well as older folk songs predating Burns. The ballad “Old Long Syne,” printed in 1711 by Watson, is very similar to “Auld Land Syne” in the first verse and the chorus, and it is almost certainly derived from the same old song Burns cited.

Hundreds of years later, from 1929 until 1976, Americans tuned in to the New Year’s Eve broadcast by Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians, first on radio and then on television. Every year Lombardo played “Auld Lang Syne,” kicking off the tradition of singing the song at midnight. Since then, numerous movies and TV shows have featured the song in scenes depicting New Year’s Eve, further cementing the tradition in American pop culture.

What it Means

“Auld Lang Syne,” which roughly translates to “times gone by” or “for old times’ sake,” is about preserving old friendships and looking back over the events of the year. In the song, the speaker asks the rhetorical question of whether old friends should be forgotten, meaning that they shouldn’t.

Because of its Scottish Gaelic language roots, some of the song lyrics sound like gibberish to other English-speaking cultures. Conventionally, only the first verse and the chorus are sung, so the difference between the languages is only noticeable in the titular phrase. But in later verses it is obvious that the song is not in English.

As the song progresses, we hear about old friends that haven’t seen each other in a while and who are meeting up again, having a drink and reminiscing about the olden days.

Learn the Rest of the Song

Many people sing “Auld Lang Syne”—or try to sing it—on New Year’s Eve, but few know the lyrics, so they just pretend to mouth the words. It really doesn’t take much effort to learn the first verse and the chorus, but why not learn the whole song while you’re at it?

Here are the original song lyrics to the entire song. Sing along with the video of singer Mairi Campbell’s haunting version of the song, which was featured in the movie “Sex and the City” (2008).

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne.

Chorus:
For auld lang syne, my jo,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne,

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp!
And surely I’ll be mine!
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

[Chorus]

We twa hae run about the braes
And pu’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary foot
Sin auld lang syne.

[Chorus]

We twa hae paidl’d i’ the burn,
Frae mornin’ sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
Sin auld lang syne.

[Chorus]

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
And gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak a right guid willy waught,
For auld lang syne.

[Chorus]

And here are the lyrics for the English version of the song, which you can practice with this video featuring Dutch violinist, conductor and musical phenomenon André Rieu. Bagpipe and all!

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
for auld lang syne?

Chorus:
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!
and surely I’ll buy mine!
And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

[Chorus]

We two have run about the hills,
and picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.

[Chorus]

We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
since auld lang syne.

[Chorus]

And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.

[Chorus]