Auld Lang Syne

The nostalgic song toasting times gone by that has spread around the world.

Auld Lang Syne started as a traditional Scottish folk song. The lyrics were written down, added to, and made famous by 18th century Scottish national poet Robert Burns in 1788. In the late 18th century Burns was touring Scotland collecting folk songs & poetry when he recorded Auld Lang Syne and submitted it to The Scots Musical Museum.

Burns contributed hundreds of songs to the Museum whose intention was to preserve the fading Scots language & culture which was becoming increasingly influenced by English culture. Auld Lang Syne is written partially in English but also partially in Scots (which is a Germanic derived Scottish language, different than “Scottish” which is a Celtic Gaelic derived language). The lyrics were originally set to a few different melodies but in 1799 they were paired with the melody we know today.

Written down and added to by Robert Burns, Auld Lang Syne has become the unofficial theme song of New Year’s.

What is it and why New Year’s Eve?

Because the lyrics are partially in Scots most people don’t know exactly what the song means. The title “auld lang syne” in Scots translates to “old long since” or more loosely as “for the sake of the good old days gone by”. The song is a toast to friendship and to the fond memories of days gone by.

Given the song’s spirit of looking back while looking forward it became a standard sung every Hogmanay (the Scottish New Year’s Eve). Its association with New Year’s in North America was because of Guy Lombardo. On New Year’s Eve 1928 Guy Lombardo and The Royal Canadians big band hosted a concert at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City and at the stroke of midnight they played Auld Lang Syne. For the next 47 years they played NYE concerts and every midnight they played Auld Lang Syne, earning Lombardo the nickname of “Mr. New Year’s Eve”. When Dick Clark created Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve from Times Square in 1972 he too played Lombardo’s version of Auld Lang Syne at midnight. Since then the song has become synonymous with New Year’s.

Guy Lombardo’s classic 1947 rendition of Auld Lang Syne.

Around the World

While the song is internationally recognized as the unofficial theme song of New Year’s Eve the melody has been used in other ways. The Korean national anthem Aegukga originally used the melody of Auld Lang Syne until 1948 when it was replaced with an original melody. It was also the melody of the national anthem of the Maldives, Qaumii salaam, until 1972 when it too was replaced with an original melody.

The Dutch song Wij houden van Oranje (which translates to “We Love Orange”) is a national soccer chant set to the melody of Auld Lang Syne. Also in Japan the melody is used for for the graduation ceremony song Hotaru no Hikari, the melody is used to mark the end of the day in department stores, etc.

QI discusses the history of Auld Lang Syne

Toasting the Past, Looking Forward

Like the Roman god Janus, Auld Lang Syne is a seasonal reminder to look back at the days gone by but also look ahead to the future. It’s a nostalgic song that toasts the people with us today as well as the people with us in spirit.

Janus

The Roman two-faced god of transitions and the start of a new year.

Since the Romans “borrowed” large amounts Greek culture, it’s fun to find mythological traditions that are uniquely Roman. Janus is a Roman god with no Greek equivalent. He was created before the importation of the Greek pantheon and even before the foundation of Rome itself. Typically he is depicted as just a head with two faces looking in opposite directions. He’s the god of transitions, change, beginnings & endings, of doorways & gates, etc. He faces both the past and the future.

Originally spelled Ianus, since the letter “J” wasn’t added to the Western alphabet until after 1524 CE, janus meant “arched passage, doorway” in Latin. There were numerous jani (ceremonial gateways) built throughout Rome as superstitious freestanding structures for good luck and to bring about good beginnings.

The exact origin of Janus is unclear. There are theories that he was originally a sun god, as the sun would be the beginning of a new day, but this isn’t certain. What is better known is that he presided over beginnings and was invoked at the start of ceremonies. His being the gatekeeper to the gods meant you made an offering to him before reaching out to any of the other gods.

Janus in profile. Sometimes the faces looked identical, but other times the one face is older & bearded while the other face is clean-shaven & younger.

Start All Over Again

Janus’s role as the god of transitions led to the month of January being named for him, as on January 1st we start not only a new day but a new month and a new year as well. The Romans believed that how something started was an indication of how it would go. An inauspicious start could prove disastrous to a new venture so it was important to make an offering to Janus.

So it became customary on January 1st to not only honor Janus, but to give gifts & well-wishes to other Romans. This could set the standard for the rest of the year. At the start of a new year it’s valuable to not just look back, but also to look forward to something new.