Why do we sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ to end one year and kick off the next?

Nouvel an horloge à 2013Well, since the world didn’t end on December 21st, we can officially celebrate the start of another new year. (I’m sure you’re breathing a sigh of relief.)

But when it comes to having an array of catchy tunes to help celebrate the season, New Year’s is the ugly stepchild of Christmas. It gets secondary, parenthetical billing in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas (and a Happy New Year),” and the other song or two we associate with the holiday — like “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” — are decidedly melancholy.

Still, nothing reminds us of the fleeting nature of time and the importance of long-standing friendships like the song that gets drunkenly belted out at raucous New Year’s parties around the English-speaking world: “Auld Lang Syne.” We sing it with gusto every year, but what does it mean and how did it become the go-to ballad of New Year’s Eve?

“Auld lang syne” simply means “times long past,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, although the American Merriam-Webster gives it a cheerier spin by defining it as “the good old times.” The phrase was popularized by Robert Burns’ version of “Auld Lang Syne” in 1788, though the melody is much older, stemming from traditional Scottish folk music. This little ditty became an American standard in the 1930s thanks to bandleader Guy Lombardo, the man who owned New Year’s Eve long before Dick Clark.

If you’ve ever sung the lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne” and thought to yourself, “What the heck am I singing?” or “Why is this so freaking depressing?” you’re not alone. Here are the words that we use to welcome the new year (the full version of the song is much longer):

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

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

This is the most well-known portion of the English translation of this song — so if you find this confusing, don’t even try to sing the rest of the song with its pint-stowps and running around the braes. But I think it’s time to put that famous question from “When Harry Met Sally” to rest:

Harry: [about Auld Lang Syne] What does this song mean? My whole life, I don’t know what this song means. I mean, ‘Should old acquaintance be forgot’? Does that mean that we should forget old acquaintances, or does it mean if we happened to forget them, we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot?

Sally: Well, maybe it just means that we should remember that we forgot them or something. Anyway, it’s about old friends.

It turns out, neither of them are quite right. “Should auld acquaintance be forgot?” is actually a rhetorical question that’s meant to make you reflect: Should we forget our old friends and loved ones? Should we forget the good times gone by? The obvious answer, which goes unspoken, is no. And that becomes more apparent with the rest of the lyrics, which are largely about buying pints for friends (along with some dining and frolicking).

Who wants to forget friends like that? So tonight, when you belt out “Auld Lang Syne,” impress your friends with the fact that really, they’re just asking a rhetorical question (since I’m sure it’ll just come up naturally, of course). Happy new year!

From good tidings to Parson Brown, find out what your favorite holiday tunes actually mean

Victorian christmas carolers making a vintage cardThe holiday season seems to be the only time of year that we Americans happily revert to Victorian English, singing songs about donning gay apparel and demanding figgy pudding. Since we’ve been singing these songs since childhood, it’s only natural that we don’t pause to wonder what these phrases mean or where they come from…

But after yet another year of hearing Ray Charles belt out something about a dude named Parson Brown in “Winter Wonderland,” I decided it was time to get to the bottom of what a few of my favorite carols really mean… For starters, what is a carol? Well, the word dates back to 1300s France, where it meant “a joyful song or dance in a ring.” It became more strongly associated with religious Christmas songs in 1500s England, although today we use the word to describe pretty much any song associated with the holiday.

So, here’s a look at where a few favorite modern-day carols come from, as well as what some of those perplexing lyrics really mean:

1.) Winter Wonderland: Who the heck is Parson Brown?
This 1930s tune has a line so odd and perplexing, it has its own Snopes entry:

In the meadow we can build a snowman,
then pretend that he is Parson Brown.
He’ll say, ‘Are You Married?’ We’ll say, ‘No man,
but you can do the job while you’re in town!’

So who is Parson Brown? It turns out this verse is about a couple frolicking in the snow, imagining their snowman is a traveling parson who’ll help them elope. Yeah, not exactly the stuff of kids’ songs, which is why Parson Brown got the boot for a circus clown in the ’50s.

2.) We Wish You a Merry Christmas: I brought good tidings, now give me pudding.
Dating back to 16th-century England, this fine tune was sung by carolers who’d bring “Good tidings for Christmas and a happy new year.” (A tiding is simply “a piece of news,” though now we usually use it in the plural and associate it with good news.)

This jovial little line is followed by a much more demanding one: “Now bring us some figgy pudding! Yes, bring us some figgy pudding! Now bring us some figgy pudding and bring it out here.” Carolers would typically be rewarded by the wealthy in a community with treats like figgy pudding. Much like the word tidings and the tradition of caroling, this treat has fallen out of fashion, too — so don’t go around asking people for pudding in exchange for your tidings.

3.) Deck the Halls: Decking, donning and trolling the holidays away
This little Christmas ditty has become a modern-day American classic, but the melody dates back to 16th-century Wales. The lyrics we sing today were popularized in the mid-1800s, which is why we have no idea what the hell they mean. Some choice phrases:

Deck the halls: Decorate the halls lavishly (related to “getting decked out”)
Don we now our gay apparel: We’re sporting our finest threads!
Troll the ancient yuletide carol: Sing that old Christmas tune in a round (you know, like “Row, row, your boat…”)

4.) Jingle Bells: I told you to jingle those bells, dammit!
I know what you’re thinking — “I understand Jingle Bells perfectly fine, thank you!” But do you?  Do you really? Did you ever stop to wonder, just who or what is jingling those bells? Grammatically speaking, the phrase “jingle bells” could mean a number of things:

Jingle, bells!: Hey, bells! You better jingle if you know what’s good for you…
Jingle bells (noun): A specific kind of bell (esp. the kind on a one-horse open sleigh)
– (You) jingle bells!: Hey, dude driving this sleigh — make those bells jingle!

It turns out the third one (“jingle bells” as an imperative phrase) is actually what the songwriter intended. He also wrote this as a Thanksgiving song.  Go figure.

These factoids are my gift to you — now go forth and amaze (er, annoy) your friends and family at that holiday dinner party.

The Mayan calendar pushes us to define “the end of the world” as we know it

© olgachirkova - Fotolia.comBy now, you’ve probably heard that the world is scheduled to end on December 21, 2012 according to an ancient Mayan calendar that’s stirring up a whole lot of panic.

Despite expert proclamations that the world will NOT end this month (including one from NASA), there’s a growing movement of “preppers” actively preparing for the end of the world as we know it (personally, I’m preparing to hear a whole lot of R.E.M.)

So why is the Mayan calendar’s 12/21 end date causing such a ruckus across the globe, while Yucatán is busy organizing a Mayan cultural festival that runs till 12/22? Well, the Mayan calendar prediction is just so darn specific. Usually doomsday predictions are more along the lines of “when evil triumphs over good” — which is left open to quite a bit of interpretation. It’s a whole lot easier to get riled up over a particular date.

But why are people preparing for the end of the world if, you know, the world will cease to exist and it won’t matter how many Twinkies and gas masks you stockpiled? Well, it has to do with how you define the end of the world. Eschatology (basically, the study of the end of the world) is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the part of theology concerned with death, judgement, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind” — and how you view these  events depends a great deal on your religious and/or cultural background.

It seems to me there are three main definitions of the “end of the world” that affect your decision to prepare, or not to prepare: 1.) A cataclysmic event (maybe a meteor?) that causes a period of drawn-out chaos before life ceases to exist on earth; 2.) An event (perhaps a battle between good and evil) that will mark the end of the world and your assumption into Heaven; and 3.) A light switch-style event — the world existed, now it doesn’t. If you believe in 1 (and maybe even 2), you’re more apt to prepare for the end.

Interestingly, two of the major words we use in our language to describe the end of the world (armageddon and apocalypse) both stem from the Christian tradition. The word armageddon comes from the New Testament — it’s “the place where the kings of the earth under demonic leadership will wage war on the forces of God at the end of history.” Today, we think of it as a movie starring Ben Affleck … and a general cataclysmic event that precipitates the end of days.

But this concept of a battle between good and evil marking the end of the world is in line with Hindu and Buddhist eschatology, too — the idea that we’ll reach a state of moral decline that looks something like The Hunger Games before the whole world gets destroyed …. so a new world can be created with a blank slate. What this destruction and rebirth looks like varies across traditions, but the concepts are metaphorically very similar.

The word apocalypse also stems from a Christian end-of-world story, although we use it today to be synonymous with a world-ending cataclysmic event. Many Christians believe in a post-apocalyptic Rapture — that is, “the final assumption of Christians into heaven during the end-time according to Christian theology,” which is quite different from how Eastern religions conceptualize the end of the world.

A common thread in eschatology, however, is that the “end” is rarely all that finite.  Sure, some traditions are more pessimistic or optimistic, but there’s usually a next chapter: Heaven, a new world, or a rebirth after a battle between good and evil destroys most life on earth. We bring these hopes and fears to how we view the supposed “prediction” of the Mayan calendar. But there are scholars of Latin American civilizations who believe that the 2012 “end” date was simply the end of a cycle on one calendar — it would be marked by celebration, and another cycle would begin. In other words, the world isn’t ending on December 31, 2012 just because that’s where your calendar ends.

So while December 21, 2012 isn’t doomsday after all (because, hey, we’ve been wrong about this plenty of times before…), the Mayan calendar offers a chance for reflection. Why is it that so many people seem convinced we’ve reached the age of ultimate moral decay? What extreme weather events have transpired recently that make us fear that the end is near? And since the world isn’t ending in the next few weeks, what can we do to make sure we don’t hasten along its demise?