New Year’s – as the clock strikes midnight, we pop open the champagne, watch the Times Square ball drop, kiss our loved ones, and sing the well-known Scottish poem-turned-song. But why? None of the lyrics invoke the arrival of January 1st.
Using lyrics of an older ballad, the Scottish Romantic poet Robert Burns penned the famous verses in 1788. The words would be only be modified for non-Scots to understand, and the song is still widely sung around the world, particularly in English-speaking countries.
As Sally explains to Harry in a famous 1989 romantic comedy, “Auld Lang Syne” is about remembering old friends. The lyrics ask whether we should forget our memories of the past and of those we knew: "Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and days of auld lang syne?" No, we should remember and raise a toast to the past: “For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we'll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”
In 2011, Peggy Noonan wrote a wonderful column about the song where she recounted its meaning and what it meant to different people. My favorite answer comes from outgoing U.S. Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma: "I think it's a description of the things we lose in our hurry to do things. We forget to be a friend. We have to take the time to make friends and be friends, to sit and tell stories and listen to those of others."
While “Auld Lang Syne” is sung at a wide range of events – graduations, funerals, Boy Scout jamborees, and parties celebrating new beginnings, New Year’s is probably the occasion most closely associated with the ballad (My family watches the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life on New Year’s Eve where the characters burst into song as friends and family surround George Bailey, who realizes there is so much to live for in life. The Horans do this despite the film being set on Christmas Eve).
We can largely thank music legend Guy Lombardo for establishing the tradition of singing this song on December 31st. His Italian-Canadian immigrant father was an amateur singer, and he had Lombardo and his brothers learn instruments to accompany him. The brothers formed “the Royal Canadians” in 1924. By the late '20s, the Royal Canadians had achieved substantial commercial success in Canada and the United States for jazz and big band music.
Beginning in 1929, Lombardo and his band performed at the Roosevelt Hotel’s Roosevelt Grill in New York City on New Year’s Eve. They played at the Roosevelt Hotel until the 1960s when they moved over to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The orchestra’s New Year’s music was broadcast live on radio. In 1954, the New Year’s Eve Party first aired on television. The TV program aired every year until 1976, usually on CBS. Lombardo became “Mr. New Year’s Eve.” While the band played and sung a whole night’s worth of songs, “Auld Lang Syne” was the song that Lombardo popularized for the occasion.
By the 1970s, Lombardo’s TV party faced competition from Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin Eve special on ABC, but the big band still remained popular, especially among older audiences. Although the Canadian-American musician passed away in 1977, Mr. New Year’s Eve has been immortalized as the Scottish poem remains the traditional song to ring in the New Year. Lombardo and his Royal Canadians performed for 48 consecutive years.
There are many reasons to be thankful to be alive in the 21st century, but as Senator Coburn has observed, we lose things in the hurry of the modern world. As we wait for 2015, take some time to think of those you haven’t seen or those you’ve forgotten. Raise a glass to them, but also raise it to the 18th century Scotsman and the 20th century jazz-era bandleader, who taught us to remember.