Why Do We Sing “Auld Lang Syne” at New Year’s?

December 30, 2022

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The song “Auld Lang Syne” is commonly sung by party revelers as the clock ticks over to a new year, but why is that, and what does it mean?

“Auld Lang Syne” is a poem that was written by Robert Burns in Scotland in 1788. Burns actually sent the poem to the Scots Musical Museum, saying that it was from an old, traditional folk song, but he also indicated that he was the first to have written it down. The term “Auld Lang Syne” roughly translates to “for old times sake” or “old long since.”

Here’s the English translation of Burns’s poem:

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old 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.

The song goes on for four more verses, but they usually aren’t sung during the New Year’s celebrations (probably because no one knows the words). You’ll notice that each verse ends in a question mark, which poses the question of whether old times should be forgotten.

It’s generally thought it means that one should reflect on the past year and on keeping past friendships. It isn’t just used on New Year’s either. The song is often sung at graduations, funerals, or farewell parties, as well as many other occasions where there is a time period with some end and a new beginning.

While the song started in Scotland, it eventually spread around the world (mostly to English speaking countries) when these people began to emigrate to other parts of the world. The original Scottish tradition for singing the song has everyone stand in a circle with their arms across their bodies so they can hold the person’s hand on the right with their left hand and the person’s hand on their left with their right hand. They sing right before midnight, and as the song ends, they rush to the middle while still holding hands.

You can see a full list of the verses from the sources below, just in case you want to sing the whole song.

Sources: Independent UK, Scotland.org, BBC, Telegraph UK

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Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites (you can find out how to join below). I hope you find things here to annoy those around you with your new found knowledge.

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