Here's the Real Meaning Behind 'Auld Lang Syne'

Here's the Real Meaning Behind 'Auld Lang Syne'

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The grand finale to the holiday season, New Year's Eve, comes with watching the ball drop live and mixing up New Year's drinks, but of course there's also plenty of emotional reflection on the past year and the year ahead (we've got New Year's quotes for that!). While things may look very different this year, the traditional New Year's Eve song "Auld Lang Syne" will likely still find its way to your ears sometime during the holiday season as the world rings in 2023.

Chances are, you've been part of a festive, heartfelt "Auld Lang Syne" singalong when someone breaks out New Year's songs, but do you know the real meaning behind the song? Here, a quick refresher on the traditional tune you'll hear on December 31:

What does "Auld Lang Syne" mean?

Originally written in a language called Scots, which is an ancient twist on English barely recognizable to modern-day English speakers, the phrase literally translates to "old long since," but has adopted a more fluid definition along the lines of "for old time's sake" or "the olden days."

Where does "Auld Lang Syne" come from?

The phrase technically dates from the 16th century (think 1580s—truly vintage), but was solely an oral tradition for the first few hundred years. It was not formally written down until around 1788, when the poet Robert Burns incorporated the phrase into one of his works. (Burns is the most commonly credited poet, though other names have appeared in various histories of the phrase.) He was so enamored with the phrase and its esteemed place in Scottish traditions that he submitted his poem to the Scots Musical Museum to preserve it forever.

In Scotland, where the phrase originated, New Year's celebrations are of unusual importance. The holiday is known as Hogmanay, and in some regions and households, it even holds more importance than Christmas. This cultural standard can be traced to the Scottish Reformation era, when early Puritans and Presbyterians looked down upon extravagant Christmas celebrations as superstitious and unnecessary. With Christmas celebrations restricted to the bare minimum, Hogmanay stole the spotlight as the main winter event.

The "Auld Lang Syne" lyrics we know (or pretend to know) today are derived from the original poem, and are typically sung at New Year's Eve celebrations to reflect upon and recognize old friendships that have stood the test of time as a new year begins. Traces of the original Scots language are still there, but today's lyrics are comparatively easy to decipher:

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

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-stoup!
and surely I’ll be mine!
And we’ll tak' a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

Wait, what is a "cup o' kindness"?

Well, pretty much exactly what it sounds like! The term "cup o' kindness" describes the tradition of sharing a beverage among friends, or performing a toast to invoke good spirits, prosperity, kindness, and good will.

How did "Auld Lang Syne" get so popular?

Countless artists and composers (including Beethoven!) have created their own version of "Auld Lang Syne" during the course of centuries. But as far as 20th century and modern versions go, we have Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians to thank for the widespread popularity of the song. Before Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve television special ascended to its place of domination on the airwaves, a radio broadcast show featuring Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians was the centerpiece of most families' New Year's Eve traditions. From 1929 through the mid-1970s, Lombardo closed each show with "Auld Lang Syne," which increased the song's familiarity among American households. Today, versions by Bing Crosby, James Taylor, and Ingrid Michaelson are most commonly played on streaming sites.

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