New Year’s Eve, First-Footing and The Tradition of Singing “Auld Lang Syne”

New Year’s Eve, First-Footing and The Tradition of Singing “Auld Lang Syne”

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New Year’s Day was not always celebrated on January 1. In the time of the Anglo-Saxons, December 25 was the first day of the new year. The Gregorian calendar set December 31 as the last day of the year, but that did not keep people throughout history from celebrating March 1, March 25, and September 24, as the first day of the new year, depending on the calendar in use at the time. As late as the 17th Century, people saw the legal year beginning on March 25. Samuel Pepys wrote of the old year ending on December 31 some 80 years before England actually moved the start of the year to January 1. 

Many of the customs of New Year festivals note the passing of time with both regret and anticipation. The baby as a symbol of the new year dates to the ancient Greeks, with an old man representing the year that has passed. The Romans derived the name for the month of January from their god Janus, who had two faces, one looking backward and the other forward. The practice of making resolutions to rid oneself of bad habits and to adopt better ones also dates to ancient times. Because of the belief that what a person does on the first day of the year foretells what he will do for the remainder of the year, gatherings of friends and relatives have long been significant. The first guest to cross the threshold, or “first foot,” is significant and may bring good luck if of the right physical type. [Britannica]

The first visitor to set foot across the threshold after midnight on New Year’s Eve could name the family’s fortune or its doom for the coming year. “First footing” was a belief in parts of Scotland and in the northern shires of England. It was believed a tall, dark, and handsome male brought luck — that is if his feet were shaped correctly. A man “high in the instep,” meaning he had high arches would permit the bad luck to flow under his feet. Women and men with flat feet were considered bad luck, that is, unless the woman was a red head with bare-feet. Blondes also could be considered good luck if they were bare-footed. The first-footer had to enter the house through the main door and wish the occupants a blessed new year. When he left the first-footer exited the door at the back of the house so he could take all of the previous year’s troubles with him. The first-footer would often bring gifts that represented prosperity, warmth, good cheer and food, such as coins, coal, whisky or ale, and bread. 

New Year’s Eve during Jane Austen time held a bit of superstitions to make it interesting. As the hours would tick down, the family would gather in a circle. At the strike of midnight upon the clock, the head of the family would go to the door and open it to let out “the old” and to welcome “the new” year. Those who were most superstitious would also “cleanse” the house of ashes and scraps of material and of perishable items. In that manner, the family did not carry over the “bad or evil” things in the house into the new year. They would foster good luck by their actions. 

Tonight many of you will break out into the strands of “Auld Lang Syne,” which can literally be translated to “old long since” or as we think of it “days gone by.” The song evokes nostalgia and a sense of belonging. But what do you know of the song’s origin? Of its lyrics? 

According to “The History and Words of Auld Lang Syne,” the song is a Scottish tradition to be sung right before midnight. According to the tradition, all in the room stand in a circle holding hands. When the final verse and the line “And there’s a hand my trusty friend,” arrives, each person crossing their arms over their waists to take the hands of the people on both sides of them. When the song ends they all rush into the middle of the circle together. 

According to the BBC article, Have Old Connections Been Forgot? BBC news story, the song is “now thought that the tune to match the words was part of the overture for Rosina, an obscure operetta written in 1783 by Englishman William Shield, who was born in Swalwell, Gateshead, in 1748.”

An article from The Telegraph assures us Robert Burns did not write the song as some believe. “The Scottish Bard wrote many wonderful pieces of original verse, but this was not among them. Instead, he was the first person to write down a much older Scottish folk song. In 1788 he sent a copy of the song to his friend, Mrs Agnes Dunlop, exclaiming: ‘There is more of the fire of native genius in it than in half a dozen of modern English Bacchanalians!’ Five years later he sent it to James Johnson, who was compiling a book of old Scottish songs, The Scottish Musical Museum, with an explanation: ‘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.’Musicologists and folklorists have been debating this one for years. Although it’s thought that the tune Burns originally heard is probably now forgotten, the poet did write another song with a very similar melody, called O Can Ye Labour Lea, Young Man.”

The song quickly spread to much of the English-speaking world and is now sung at the stroke of midnight instead of when the guests leave the party.

This Scottish version would not be familiar to most: 

Should auld acquaintance be forgot, 
And never brought to mind? 
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, 
And auld lang syne!

For auld lang syne, my dear, 
For auld lang syne. 
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, 
For auld lang syne.

And surely ye’ll be your pint stowp! 
And surely I’ll be mine! 
And we’ll tak a cup o’kindness yet, 
For auld lang syne.

We twa hae run about the braes, 
And pou’d the gowans fine; 
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit, 
Sin’ auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn, 
Frae morning sun till dine; 
But seas between us braid hae roar’d 
Sin’ auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand, my trusty fere! 
And gie’s a hand o’ thine! 
And we’ll tak a right gude-willie waught, 
For auld lang syne.

In 1711, James Watson published a song called “Old Lang Syne,” which contains similar lines. The Burns version likely comes from an older Scottish air, as “syne” is an ancient Scottish word for “old kindness.” 

New-Years-Eve-logo.pngIn case you do not know anything beyond the first verse and the chorus, here is the full song: 

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?

CHORUS:
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!
and surely I’ll buy mine!
And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

CHORUS

We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.

CHORUS

We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
since auld lang syne.

CHORUS

And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.

CHORUS

 

Resources: 

“Auld Lang Syne,” What Does It Mean? ABC News 

New Year’s Favors 

Robert Burns Country 

 

Note!!! I have a Twelve Days of Christmas Sale going on until January 5. If you have not checked out the titles, you may find them HERE. Most of the books, meaning those for which I own the rights, are $1.99 or less.

14 Responses to New Year’s Eve, First-Footing and The Tradition of Singing “Auld Lang Syne”

  1. Insightful history/beliefs about the New Year. It shouldn’t be surprising as the Chinese have the New year around the first week of February. There’s also a lot of myth with New Years such a luck for wearing red, or having round things around (thus better to have coins than paper money). Thank you this interesting post Regina. HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL!!!

    • I heard someone of TV today say that his mother believed not to do wash on New Year’s Day because you washing away someone close from your life something during the year.

  2. I had never heard the song in its entirety before and didn’t know all the history and customs surrounding New Year’s Day. Thanks for sharing and I hope everyone has a wonderful New Year!

    • I heard two different versions sung last evening. Neither had the words correct. I love the scene in When Harry Met Sally where the characters discuss “Auld Lang Syne.”
      Harry: [about Auld Lang Syne] What does this song mean? My whole life, I don’t know what this song means. I mean, ‘Should old acquaintance be forgot’? Does that mean that we should forget old acquaintances, or does it mean if we happened to forget them, we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot?
      Sally: Well, maybe it just means that we should remember that we forgot them or something. Anyway, it’s about old friends.

  3. Great history lesson. I love the background you gave us for auld lang syne. Happy New Year to you and many blessings!

  4. When I was little, my mother [unfortunately] was the first person to step into my great-grandmother’s house on New Years. You would have thought the world had come to an end. Mammy was so upset. An older gentleman in the neighborhood always went door to door and acted the ‘first footer.’ He had not made it to Mammy’s house yet. Whew. Mother never made that mistake again. When ‘Old Charlie’ began to get too old for the office, my father [tall and handsome] would act the part for Mammy. She always did like him. Funny how I had forgotten that. Thanks for the memories and the various traditions throughout history. This was an amazing post. Happy New Year and many blessings to all the authors here at AuAu.

    • We are Scots in ancestry. We kept with first footing when I was young. The problem for us was the man was not so tall who did the deed. LOL! I am glad you enjoyed the piece, Jeanne.

  5. Thank you for sharing these historical facts and customs 🙂

    One of the customs we observe is eating twelve grapes – one for each month of the new year.

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