Every New Year’s Eve at midnight, after the luminous multicolored ball drops and couples exchange their midnight kisses, a familiar question can be heard echoing throughout throngs of partygoers: “Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?”

This question, which readers may recognize as the first line of the famous New Year’s anthem “Auld Lang Syne,” embodies both the excitement and anxiety that comes with starting a new year. Now that 2018 is over, do we leave the past behind? Do we vow to start over fresh, adhering to the #newyearnewme philosophy?  

I have often struggled to embrace the new year. I no longer make resolutions because I found that the ones I drafted were often shallow attempts at self-improvement. I have stopped seeing Jan. 1 as the start of something new and now mostly view the occasion as an opportunity to see friends while enjoying a glass of champagne.

My mindset shifted, however, after I took a second look at “Auld Lang Syne,” a song that I have heard at countless New Year’s parties over the years in the background but have never truly listened to, and I doubt I’m the only one. Despite the tune’s universality, I had never looked beyond the song’s first verse and was excited to discover its origins.

Since I am studying abroad at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland this semester, I was fascinated to learn that “Auld Lang Syne” originated in Scotland. Robert Burns, the national bard of Scotland, wrote the poem in 1788 and set it to the tune of a traditional Scottish folk song. The title itself is in the Scots language and roughly translates to “for old time’s sake,” and the song has traditionally been sung in a celebratory manner in Scotland. 

On New Year’s Eve, just before midnight, singing the tune while standing in a circle and holding hands with friends is the Scottish custom — not exactly what I’m used to seeing in the United States. Rather than an opportunity for deliberate celebration, I have typically found the song to be reduced to background music behind champagne popping and midnight cheers.

The Scottish circle tradition exudes the poem’s themes of comradery and celebration. Although multiple references to alcohol like “cup o’kindness” and “pint” can be found in the stanzas, the poem is more complex than the typical feel-good drinking anthem. 

Later lines reference hardships that have been overcome, such as roaring seas and weary feet, and those victories alone merit rejoicing. Sorry to burst your champagne bubbles, but rather than glorifying drinking for the hell of it, the poem shouts, “We went through hard times, but together we made it, so let’s celebrate.”

Celebrating the new year used to seem arbitrary to me, but after taking a second look at Burns’ poem, I realize I was missing the point entirely. The new year doesn’t demand us to leave the past in the past; rather, it provides the opportunity to celebrate all our trials and successes, as well as thank the individuals who helped us weather storms along the way. 2019 invites us to reflect but not dwell on 2018 while recognizing that 2019 won’t necessarily be any easier, just different. 

If you are like me and struggle to celebrate New Year’s Eve or embrace 2019, perhaps you can find new meaning in the simple components of life that often go unnoticed. Diving into the history of “Auld Lang Syne” for this column taught me more about my country of residence for the next six months and brightened my outlook for the new year. Whether that change comes from a resurgence of gratitude for an old friend or a re-examination of your favorite song, you’d be surprised at how much meaning you can find in what you thought was already known. 

At the same time, “Auld Lang Syne” reminds us that the new year doesn’t have to focus on the “new” at all. As Burns writes, sometimes it’s just an excuse to gather friends and drink “for old time’s sake.” 

Kathryn Baker is a junior in the College. Novel Ideas appears in print every other Friday. 

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