At the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, it is probably no surprise that humans have always gravitated to the light. We light trees, and our houses are ablaze with light. Chestnuts roast on an open fire, musically. One religion celebrates the birth of “the light of the world” and another the Festival of Lights.
A little over a week later our calendar turns a page to a new year. We try to look forward with hope, try to believe a new year will be better. But as the song suggests, we are really compelled to look back, to remember all the candles that have gone out – parents, grandparents, friends and imaginary friends who entertained, informed and amused us through the years.
It is thus a season of both hello and of good-bye. It is no accident that the beautiful James Joyce story that concludes Dubliners, “The Dead,” is set at this season and concerns a past love that is long dead but lingers on. After a festive party, a man learns his wife still thinks of a young boy who loved her and died, and he finds he is as bereft as she as he watches the snow fall to cover all of Ireland, the living and the dead.
The song we sing at New Year’s is of remembrance of those long gone or far away. It was adapted by Robert Burns in 1788 from earlier folk tunes and its less familiar middle verses make plain it originally concerned the yearning sorrow of those left behind by the Scottish diaspora. It recalls childhood games played together, and now the playmates have wandered so far apart that “seas between us now have roared.”
Scotland was a poor country with little arable land so, beginning with the Irish plantation of James I and then the founding of the American colonies, emigration swelled to a mighty stream of Scots and Scots-Irish who would never return. Today there are four-and-a-half million Scots, but those with Scottish ancestry around the world number in the tens of millions. They account for between ten and twenty percent of Americans. And almost as high a percentage in several countries around the world.
Scottish place names tell the tale, from Dunedin in New Zealand to Perth in Australia, from Calgary in Canada to Glasgow in South Africa. My home state boats Aberdeen, Caledonia, Dundee, Ross, Sterling and many more. So does yours, no doubt. Half of the Presidents of the United States have Scottish ancestry.
But of course the sense nostalgia for the lost long ago in the song is far from confined to Scots. It has become the song of the New Year, capturing the mood of love for those distant and bereavement for those no longer with us, of homesickness for the past. These feelings are universal, more than ever now, perhaps, in a less rooted time. So we raise a glass to better days, in the future perhaps, but often it is to the past that our thoughts return. On December 31st, Auld Lang Syne is sung around the world and not just in English. The Indian Nobelist Tagore wrote a Bengali version, for instance.
Happy New Year and Auld Lang Syne to everyone. Embrace those you love, and those you have lost in your thoughts. It is a truism in many tongues that as long as we are remembered, we live. And never more than at this season of looking forward, it is natural to look back to remember all of those who live in the old far away.