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?

CHORUS:
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!

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