Most of us have heard at least the first few bars of the song “Auld Lang Syne,” but not many of us really know where it came from. It is a song from an ancient Scottish celebration called Hogmanay, held on New Year’s Eve, and which was spread throughout the English-speaking world by Robert Burns, who wrote down the lyrics in 1788 (they were published after his death, in 1796).
The phrase means “days gone by,” and is interestingly at odds with many other English traditions around the New Year. The song has to do with remembering past experiences and wondering whether they should be forgotten, but most traditions for the New Year involve getting rid of the old and welcoming the new.
For instance, in preparation for New Year’s Eve, houses would be cleaned and swept free of ashes, dust, rags, and any perishables, in a symbolic purge of the old. On New Year’s Eve, families would wait until the clock struck 12 midnight, and then the head of the household would open the door to usher out the old year and welcome the new. It was considered bad luck to hold onto the things of the old year.
Which is odd, because only a few days earlier was the most generous season of giving. Christmas Day and Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) were traditionally the days for wealthy landowners to welcome their tenants and neighbors, rich and poor alike, to feasts or parties or balls, or to give presents of meat or other valuable foods to the deserving. One would think they would like to remember such things, and carry that spirit into the New Year.
But perhaps that is what Burns was trying to say, in publishing the words to that old song to the world: good things should not be forgotten. Let’s remember the times we were good, and the times that were good to us, and move forward for old times’ sake.