Friday, December 30, 2016

Happy Hogmanay -- "Auld Lang Syne" Understandings

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.
"Auld Lang Syne" is said to be a Scots poem written in 1788 by Robert Burns (1759–1796) , widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland and a pioneer of the Romantic Movement. The roots of the song go much, much deeper.

Auld Lang Syne” comes from a storied past. Some of the lyrics of the work were collected" rather than composed by the poet. The phrase “Auld Lang Syne" was used in similar poems by Robert Ayton (1570–1638), Allan Ramsay (1686–1757), and James Watson (1711), as well as in older folk songs predating Burns.

The story goes that in 1788, after hearing it warbled by an old man, Burns was so moved by its beauty and longing that he set the words to the tune of a traditional folk song (Roud #6294). He sent his poem “Auld Lang Syne” to the Scots Musical Museum indicating that it was an ancient song but that he’d been the first to record it on paper. In any case, Burns sent a copy of the poem to a friend that year and wrote: "There is more of the fire of native genius in it (the song) than in half a dozen of modern English Bacchanalians!"

Known to few today, although Burns's "Auld Lang Syne" stirs pleasant memories of carefree companionship, the earliest surviving rendering of the ballad's beginning actually identifies the "old acquaintance (to be 'forgot')" as a faithless lover ("Thou art the most disloyall maid that ever my eye hath seen") with its narrator full of bitterness and regret. This early manuscript was first found in a commonplace book of James Crichton, 2nd Viscount Frendraught, dated 1667.

(“Auld Lang Syne: the story of a song.” The Morgan Library and Museum. 2016.)

History shows that another song beginning “Should auld acquaintance be forgot” appeared in print before Burns adopted the familiar line. Poet Allan Ramsay, whose passion for Scottish folk tradition inspired Burns, published this version in 1724, and its tone approaches the bittersweet nostalgia now associated with "Auld Lang Syne” – “Methinks around us on each bough a thousand Cupids play, whilst thro' the groves I walk with you, each object makes me gay.”

Poet Allan Ramsay's version of "Auld Lang Syne" appeared again a few decades later, set to a traditional air, in the first volume of James Johnson's Scots Musical Museum. (In 1796, in a later volume of the Museum, Johnson published the Burns version of "Auld Lang Syne" for the first time.)

(“Auld Lang Syne: the story of a song.” The Morgan Library and Museum. 2016.)

Of course, “Auld Lang Syne” has weathered time, and it still traditionally played to bid farewell to the old year at the stroke of midnight on December 31. Yet, a deeper context of the song reveals a colorful past.

(George Frederick Maine, ed. Songs from Robert Burns 1759–1796. 1788.)


History of Celebration

There is some doubt as to whether the melody used today is the same one Burns originally intended, but it is widely used in Scotland and in the rest of the world.

Singing the song on Hogmanay, or New Year's Eve, became a Scots custom that soon spread to other parts of the British Isles. As Scots, English, Welsh and Irish people emigrated around the world, they took the song with them.

Scottish Hogmanay origins are unclear but believed to be derived from the Norse and Gaelic observances of celebrating the winter solstice. It seems the holiday invoked the hill-men, or elves, to banish the trolls into the sea, part of the ancient, pagan, Norse winter festival of Yule. Viking invaders brought their midwinter customs with them from the far North to Scotland. The Scandinavian word for the feast preceding Yule – the celebration of the passing of the shortest day – was "Hoggo-nott."

The word “Hogmanay” is thought to have first been used widely following Mary Queen of Scots' return to Scotland from France in 1561.

As Christmas was all but banned and only very quietly celebrated in Scotland from the end of the 17th century until the mid-1950’s, New Year's Eve became something of a good excuse for revelry, as well as the hardly needed excuse to drink whiskey and eat good food not allowed over the Christmas period.

Historians suggest this banning may have been a result of the Protestant Reformation after which Christmas, and its close ties to the Roman Catholic Church, was seen as "too Papist." Others point to the grueling work schedules of laborers during the Industrial Revolution which did not provide time off for the Christmas holiday.

(Lara Suziedelis Bogle. “Scots Mark New Year With Fiery Ancient Rites.” National Geographic News. December 31, 2002.)

On November 19, 1644, Parliament resolved that Sunday was the "only standing holy day under the New Testament" and within a week they decided that no other holy day would be recognized.

Oliver Cromwell Bans Christmas

Public Notice

The observation of Christmas having been deemed a Sacrilege, the exchanging of Gifts and Greetings, dressing in Fine Clothing, Feasting and similar Satanical Practices are hereby FORBIDDEN with the Offender liable to a Fine of Five Shillings.

Despite Puritan ideals, Hogmanay continued. It allowed wasteful vanities, an excuse for misrule, drunkenness, promiscuity, gluttony, and gambling. It doesn't take a genius to see the parallel to modern New Years celebrations.

In fact, up until the 1950s, many Scots worked over Christmas and celebrated their winter solstice holiday at New Year when family and friends would gather for a party and to exchange presents which came to be known as hogmanays. Parties at the end of the year continue today as people still welcome friends and strangers with warm hospitality and rowdy celebration.
Old Hogmanay customs that spread throughout Scotland includes a children's tradition of gift-giving small treats such as sweets or fruit and visiting the homes of friends and neighbors.

Many Hogmanay traditions involving superstitions deal with duties that folks felt should be taken care of before midnight on December 31: these include cleaning the house and stables, taking out the ashes from the fire, and clearing all personal debts before "the bells" sounded midnight – all symbolizing a clean and happy break into the new year. The entire custom of preparing the home for New Year celebrations was called “redding” in Scotland.

(Ben Johnson. “The history of Hogmanay,” 2016.)

On the eve, great care was taken to make sure the home fire was burning strong, in order to make sure the new year hearth didn’t go out. If it did, bad luck was foretold for the household -- “the brighter the fire, the better the luck of year.” In addition, the burning of juniper in the home was believed to ward off any evil spirits. 
As an extra precaution, as many candles as possible were lit as well, thus giving the name Oidhche Choinnle – the Evening of Candles, the name for Candlemas Eve. It is said that Oidhche Choinnle was applied to Hogmanay by Protestants who didn’t observe Candlemas.

(John Gregorson Campbell and Ronald Black. The Gaelic Otherworld. 2008.)


Midnight and “Auld Lang Syne”

Historian F. Marian McNeill describes how the family would wait around the fire for the bells to strike twelve, upon which the head of the house would go to the front door and open it, waiting until the bells had died down and the new year had officially begun. Upon the bells’ silence, he would say:
“Welcome in New Year!
When ye come, bring good cheer!”
(F. Marian McNeill. The Silver Bough Vol III. 1961.)
With the welcome made, the head of the house would return to the fire where his family would be waiting, if they hadn’t all run to the windows as the bells began. Then, they would begin making a racket by shouting, beating trays, and honking horns in order to chase away the negative influences of the old year. In some parts, people fired guns as well.
Immediately after midnight came the traditional singing of "Auld Lang Syne.” Some recount this tradition as everyone standing in a circle holding hands, then at the beginning of the final verse (“And there’s a hand my trusty friend…”), they all crossed their arms across their bodies so that their left hand was holding the hand of the person on their right, and their right hand held that of the person on their left. When the song ended, everyone rushed to the middle, still holding hands, and probably giggling.

(“The History and Words of Auld Lang Syne.” November 18, 2016.)

It was not uncommon for the partiers to have a toast or two to the new year, perhaps with a traditional glass or quaich of Het Pint (ale/whiskey/egg concoction) in a copper kettle passed around for everyone to take a sip.

Next, the party exchanged their small gifts called hogmanays. And, people gave special attention to the “first-foot” – the first guest of the new year. The practice of "first footing" (or the "first foot" in the house after midnight) was once common across Scotland. It was supposed to ensure good luck for the house.

The preferred first-foot was traditionally a dark male bringing with him symbolic pieces of coal, shortbread, salt, black bun, and a “wee dram” of whiskey. It is said the requirement for dark hair echoed to a time when a blonde-haired stranger on one's doorstep meant a visit from bloodthirsty Viking raiders – indeed, a sign of a particularly bad new year. An empty-handed first-footer was also supposedly a bad omen -- though for quite different reasons.

Dr Donna Heddle, director of the Centre for Nordic Studies at Orkney and Shetland College UHI, said: "All these gifts (of first-footing) were symbolic wishes for the new year to come. Coal for heat, whiskey for good cheer and hospitality, while shortbread and black bun – a rich cake – symbolized good food all year.”

Heddle claimed, "Salt is particularly significant. Salt is a symbol of friendship. Traditionally, hospitality is referred to as sharing bread and salt.That is why so much outrage surrounds the Massacre of Glencoe. Bread and salt had been shared and it was taboo to do anything that harmed that gesture of friendship."

(Donna Heddle. “Happy Hoggo-nott?: The 'lost' meanings of Hogmanay.” BBC News. December 31, 2012.)

It was also common for girls to run to the local well for the chance of getting the first skim of it – the flower (as it was called in the south), or cream (as it was called in the north). Whoever got the first pail was said to stand a good chance of finding a good man to marry. Historian John Simpkings relates …

“... but presumably the idea is the same as the skimming of the well at Bealltainn – to get the first, and most potent toradh of the well to ensure luck and prosperity in the coming year. In some parts, it wasn’t the unmarried girls who competed for the first skim, but the wives, who would then wash the dairy utensils in it, with any leftovers being given to the cows to ensure a good supply of milk in the year to come."

(John Ewart Simpkins et al. County Folklore, Volume VII. 1914.)

In the meantime, one of the men who had dressed himself in the hide of the mart cow (the winter cow – killed at Martinmas on November 11, shortly after Samhainn – the festival marking the end of the harvest season), replete with horns, hooves and tail. Off he would go to each house in the neighborhood as residents tried to beat the hide and cause a ruckus. 

At each house that was visited, the guisers would go round deiseal three times, hammering the walls and calling to the occupants to come out. A song would be sung as the door was answered, beseeching to be let in.
(F. Marian McNeill. The Silver Bough Vol III. 1961.)
T.F. O'Rahilly explains the deiseal turning “righthandwise” or in the apparent motion of the sun ... 
“In the eyes of our early forefathers the daily course of the Sun, bringing about the alternation of light and darkness and the regular succession of the seasons, was the most striking example that man had of that divine order of the universe which served as a model for order and justice in terrestrial affairs. 

“Hence to go dessel or righthandwise, thus imitating the course of the sun, was not only the right way to make a journey, but was likewise beneficial in other affairs of life, and was likely to lead to a prosperous result; whereas to go in the contrary direction (tuaithbel) would be a violation of the established order and would lead to harm.”

(T. F. O'Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology, Dublin (1946), pp. 296-297.)

The festivities would also include the lighting of bonfires and tossing torches. Animal hide wrapped around sticks and ignited produced a smoke that was believed to be very effective in warding off evil spirits: this smoking stick was also known as a Hogmanay. In North East Scotland there is a long-standing tradition of making giant fireballs (weighing up to 10 kilos) from rags doused in paraffin, swung on poles and paraded through the town's streets.

It Still Brings a Tear

The song remains. It is an integral part of New Years celebrations, a tune that still evokes meanings and memories for millions. “Auld Lang Syne” is one of the most recognizable songs around the world.

Throughout the lifetime of the song, it was not unusual to pair verses with whatever popular tune provided a good metrical fit. In the United States, "Auld Lang Syne" served as a popular accompaniment to antislavery poems such as William Lloyd Garrison's "I am an abolitionist! I glory in the name." Katharine Lee Bates's poem "America the Beautiful" was often sung to this tune (and many others) before becoming inextricably linked with a composition by Samuel Ward.

(“Auld Lang Syne: the story of a song.” The Morgan Library and Museum. 2016.)

American historians even relate that “Auld Lang Syne” was so powerful in its emotional provocation that it was actually banned from performance on the Civil War battlefront in December of 1862. The Union Army had just suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg. With morale extremely low, Union generals worried that homesick soldiers would be moved to desertion by the song’s aching sentimentality.

And, during the Boer War, Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) composed a new set of lyrics to be sung to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne" at a benefit concert for military widows and children. His version was first published as a broadside in South Africa and was reprinted in this American keepsake edition.

Hogmanay also remains. The largest celebration of Hogmanay is now held in Edinburgh, where people join hands for what is reputed to be the world's biggest “Auld Lang Syne.” The three to four-day long New Year's party kicks off with a dramatic torchlight procession and fire festival on December 29 or 30, and travel guides say it continues with “spectacle and celebration for every one in the family” - including, in some years, even the family dog, (Dogmanay).

According to, the verses of “Auld Lang Syne” are as follows:

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-stowp!
And surely I'll be mine!
And we'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.


We twa hae run about the braes
And pu'd the gowans fine;
But we've wander'd mony a weary foot
Sin auld lang syne.


We twa hae paidl'd i' the burn,
Frae mornin' sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar'd
Sin auld lang syne.


And there's a hand, my trusty fiere!
And gie's a hand o' thine!
And we'll tak a right guid willy waught,
For auld lang syne.


Should old acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
And long, long ago.


And for long, long ago, my dear
For long, long ago,
We'll take a cup of kindness yet,
For long, long ago


And surely you'll buy your pint-jug!
And surely I'll buy mine!
And we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
For long, long ago.


We two have run about the hills
And pulled the daisies fine;
But we've wandered many's the weary foot
Since long, long ago.


We two have paddled in the stream,
From morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
Since long, long ago.


And there's a hand, my trusty friend!
And give us a hand of yours!
And we'll take a deep draught of good-will
For long, long ago.


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