A Brief History of 'Auld Lang Syne'

iStock/filadendron
iStock/filadendron

Every New Year’s Eve, after the champagne has been popped, the ball has dropped, and every-one is feeling very merry indeed, revelers queue up the same song they’ve been queuing up for decades. You know the one—it makes you cry, even though you don’t understand it and know almost none of the words.

A handful of options pop up when you search for the meaning of “auld lang syne”: "times/days gone by," “old time’s sake,” “long long times/ago,” and even “once upon a time” among them. The most common consensus is something like “for old time’s sake,” which is about as direct an interpretation as you can get, as the word-for-word translation is “old long since.” The line about “for auld lang syne” is essentially, “for (the sake of) old times.” (For the record, it never says the totally nonsensical “for the sake of auld lang syne.”) Beyond the words themselves, there’s even less agreement about exactly how the tune came to be a New Year’s Eve tradition.

The song originated as a poem , but it probably wasn’t written by Robert Burns as is commonly believed—at least not entirely. The poet was simply the first person to write down an old Scottish folk song (it bears more than a passing resemblance to “ Old Long Syne ,” a ballad that was printed by James Watson in 1711). Burns himself said, “I took it down from an old man,” and whether it was transcribed or co-authored, it’s safe to say that the “Auld Lang Syne” we know today is some combi-nation of an old poem and Burns’s creative input.

Illustration to Robert Burns' poem Auld Lang Syne by J.M. Wright and Edward Scriven
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In any case, Burns sent a copy of the poem to a friend in 1788 and wrote : "There is more of the fire of native genius in it than in half a dozen of modern English Bacchanalians!" Later he contributed it to the Scots Musical Museum.

Five years later, Burns wrote to James Johnson, who was assembling a book of old Scottish songs: "The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man."

It’s unclear whether Johnson linked Burns to the song in his credits, but by the time the book was published in 1796, the poet was dead. He’d never know that those words would eventually help secure his own cultural immortality.

The words aren’t the only element that evolved over the years; it’s believed that the original tune is different than the one we drunkenly hum along to today. Originally, the song had a more traditional folk sound, one that can be heard in (of all things) 2008’s Sex and the City movie. This version is still performed today, but with much less frequency than the New Year standard. The melody we all know was used at the suggestion of music publisher George Thompson .

How then, did a Scottish folk song with a murky provenance and nothing at all to do with New Year’s Eve become associated with the holiday? It’s largely thanks to bandleader Guy Lombar-do. In 1929 , Lombardo and his band played “Auld Lang Syne” as transitional music while performing at New York City's Roosevelt Hotel during a New Year’s Eve broadcast . It was played just after midnight, and heard over radio and television airwaves, inadvertently spawning a global tradition.

Today, “Auld Lang Syne” is one of the most recognizable songs around the world, where it's played at funerals, celebrations, and as a warning that closing time is approaching at stores throughout Japan.

To impress your date this New Year’s Eve, learn the the correct words here —and don’t worry too much about the meaning. As Sally Albright says in When Harry Met Sally...: “Anyway, it’s about old friends.”

This article originally ran in 2016.

Delight the Kids In Your Life by Calling Santa on Your Smart Home Device

iStock.com/adamkaz
iStock.com/adamkaz

If you’ve got a smart home device, Santa may be coming early this year. You and the true believers in your life can ring up St. Nick with both Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa devices. Here’s how.

If you live in a Google-equipped house, you can say “Hey Google, call Santa.” As Lifehacker reports, you’ll hear a dial tone, then the voice of an elf will come on, promising to transfer you to the big man himself. Santa will then tell you that he needs help with his holiday musical, asking you various questions about potential music choices. After you answer all the questions, he’ll incorporate your answers into a holiday song. (It also works with the Google Assistant on your phone, where you’ll get some graphics to go along with the experience.)

Alexa can help you and your favorite youngsters connect to Santa, too. You’ll need to enable Amazon’s kid-friendly FreeTime, according to Digital Trends, after which you can just say “Alexa, call Santa.” An elf or some other holiday helper will answer, then Alexa will ask for Santa. A pre-recorded exchange between the virtual assistant and Santa will ensue, because naturally, Santa’s too busy in mid-December to take all his calls.

If Christmas music is your jam, you can enable Alexa’s iHeartRadio skill and ask Alexa to “talk to Santa Claus,” who will then ask you a series of questions before coming up with a personalized holiday playlist for you.

As Christmas gets closer, you can track the whereabouts of your presents with either Google Home or Alexa. For Google Home, you just need to ask, “Hey Google, where’s Santa?” to get Santa Tracker updates. For Alexa, enable the NORAD Tracks Santa skill and say, “Alexa, ask NORAD Tracks Santa, where’s Santa?” to get an update from the North American Aerospace Defense Command on St. Nick’s location.

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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