Auld Lang Syne is the official song of starting a new year. If you managed to stay awake until midnight on January 1st, then there is a good chance you heard the song after watching a ball drop over Times Square. With an archaic sounding phrase as the song title, it is sensible to assume that, Auld Lang Syne is an old tradition that has managed to endure into the modern era. That is not the case, and the association of Auld Lang Syne with New Year’s Eve is less than a hundred years old.
The song itself does have some age. It traces back to the 17th century when it was first recorded by Scottish poet Robert Burns, and by Burns own admission, it has even older roots in Scottish folk culture. This folk song came to the new world with Scottish immigrants, but it did not get associated with New Year’s until the 1920s. Starting in 1929, Canadian band leader Guy Lombardo was tapped to lead a New Year’s Eve concert that was broadcast on the radio. The concert ended right at the turn of the New Year, and their last song was Auld Lang Syne. The reason for this is because Lombardo’s band always closed out their set with the song. Coming from an area with a heavy Scottish immigrant population, it had just been their tradition. Through the 1930’s, 40s, and 50s, Lombardo’s New Year’s Eve concert was a reoccurring program, and each year it ended with Auld Lang Syne. This cemented the song as the “traditional” New Year’s song.
The phrase Auld Lang Syne is Scottish Gaelic, it literally means “long time gone”, but colloquially has the same meaning as “times gone by”. It is a bit of an odd song to sing at the beginning of a new year, because it is a wistful song that looks back while we celebrate moving forward. It was never actually meant to be a new year’s tradition, but it became one anyway.
Despite its unique beginnings, I think from a Christian perspective singing about “long times gone” at the beginning of a new year makes a lot sense. Remembering times gone by while looking to the future puts one foot in the past and one foot in what is to come, and that is space our faith naturally occupies. We follow a messiah who walked on this earth millennia ago, yet we look forward to a future when he comes again. Our faith is rooted in the past, but is lived out in hopeful expectation of the future.
So it is importance for us to remember the past. It is important for us to remember where we have come from and the foundational beliefs that have guided followers of Jesus for scores of generations. The song Auld Lang Syne lifts up the importance of remembering the past, but it also is hopeful for the future, as one of the key lines of the song is “we will drink a cup of kindness yet.” In the same way our faith is not a museum to the past, but it is lived out in the “yet” as we join with God in the mission of the kingdom, in the mission of transforming this world in a more kind and loving place. As followers of Christ, it is appropriate for us to look forward with hope to a future while also remembering auld lang syne.