WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Auld Lang Syne.
You probably know the song well. It’s in movies and TV shows. You may even sing it traditionally every year. If you didn’t know already, it’s a very old song.
But do you know how old and where it came from? Do you know what it’s actually about?
Possible Spoiler Alert: In one of the final scenes of the Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal romantic comedy “When Harry Met Sally,” Harry questions the song’s meaning.
If you can’t or didn’t watch the video, he basically asks if the song is asking us to forget about old acquaintances or if it is about how we should remember the people we’ve forgotten, in which case, how can we remember someone we’ve forgotten? He makes some good points.
After all, the New Year is often seen as a time for new beginnings. We make resolutions, sometimes lists of things we’re going to do differently in the coming year. In ancient times, the new year coincided with the arrival of Spring, so it must have really felt like a time for a new beginning.
So, the idea we are supposed to forget those we drifted apart from as some ritual to start the year fresh doesn’t seem so far-fetched. However, that’s not what the song is about at all.
To understand what it is about, let’s start with the title “Auld Lang Syne.” It is the Scots language, which translates to Old Long Since, meaning times past.
The song is credited to famed Scottish poet Robert Burns. While Burns did write it down, he claimed he merely transcribed it while it was being sung to him.
He also stated that the ballad itself is much older. The earliest printed version of the phrase appears in the Bannatyne Manuscript in a ballad called “Auld Kyndnes foryett” from the late 1500s.
In one of my previous articles about the origins of some of our oldest Christmas carols, I talked about broadsheets, which for the first time, allowed songs to be written down and mass distributed cheaply. Prior to Burns officially publishing his version, there were multiple published broadsheets titled Auld Lang Syne, Old Long Syne, or some variation.
One of the earliest surviving broadsheets of the song is this one, believed to be from around 1701. The first stanza reads:
Should Old Acquaintance be forgot,
and never thought upon;
The flames of Love extinguished,
and fully past and gone:
Is thy sweet Heart now grown so cold,
that loving Breast of thine;
That thou canst never once reflect
on Old long syne.
On Old long syne my Jo,
in Old long syne,
That thou canst never once reflect,
in Old long syne.
As you can see, the theme is a bit different from the one we know, as this is clearly someone pleading with a lost love or love about to be lost. That opening line, though, certainly matches the more familiar song we know.
Burns’s version is considered the definitive version as it hasn’t waivered much since it was published, just translated from the Scots to English. The song became popular during Scottish new year celebrations called Hogmanay, and it was even used to close out Boy Scout Jamborees.
Big Band Leader Guy Lombardo gets the credit for popularizing the song in North America, where it has become a permanent fixture in our New Year’s celebration. So now that we know the origins, which help provide the proper context, we can examine what the lyrics are saying.
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
Looking closely at those first few verses, we see that they are questions, but once you get to the chorus, it should be apparent that they are rhetorical, meant to be said with incredulity. They’re saying, “Should we forget our old friends? Should we forget the old times we had? No, let’s drink and celebrate those old times past.”
So there’s no need to forget old friends and old times this New Year’s. Unless that’s what you want to do.
And hopefully, someone has explained to Billy Crystal, or more specifically, to the late Nora Ephron, who likely wrote the line, what the song is actually about.