The Most Wonderful Time of the Year is followed by the worst. Cold and dark and long and bleak — and it’s inaugurated with strange music. After a season of familiar songs with their messages of jingle hope and jangle peace, there’s only one tune, and it’s incomprehensible.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind.
I don’t know, should it?
There are some people I’d be happy to never recall again. There was a kid who beat me up in fourth grade while he was on crutches. He’s high on the list. But chances are these auld acquaintances have already been forgot, especially if you owed them money.
Next line: Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne.
Everyone sings this and hardly anyone knows what it means. It’s like going to church on Christmas and singing “Farbing das Gaelbelungun Krong!” every year of your life. The auld we get, but lang syne?
“For the sake of old times” is the generally accepted meaning, although it can mean “old long since” or “a long, long time” or “way long ago” or “last Tuesday between 3:02 and 3:15 p.m.” (Experts differ.)
None of this is a surprise, really. You intuited what it’s about. The latter verses that no one sings get a bit more confusing:
An’ 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. (More or less, you’ll buy a drink and I’ll buy a drink.)
Ma beastie goan the fargin craig / ma westie towpt the cairn / An’ greep’d the careworn shep, she said, for auld lang syne. (No idea.)
If we knew the song only as a plaintive lament of times gone by, sung with rue and hushed reverence for the bright days swallowed by the slakeless maw of time, I might like it better. But we know it from that Guy Lombardo version, which sounds like what you get if Grandma snored through a bagpipe.
When do we sing it? The first few seconds of the new year, inaugurating a new mortal allotment by looking backward. It should be sung at 11 p.m. Midnight should bring a song that looks forward. I don’t know what. Someone invent one. Maybe to the tune of the Oz song about the Wicked Witch’s death:
Hey ho the year is new / that’s not all! / the rent is due! / Hey ho the whole new year is new!
Everyone could suck helium and sing it like Munchkins. It would be an improvement.
The Worst Part of the Year, I said above, and you know it’s true. Anyone who looks at the situation honestly knows that January is a cinderblock dropped on your foot. Of course it has to be 31 days. No, couldn’t take three days and give them to April, June or September; has to be the longest month in the coldest part of the year, thanks to Julius Caesar.
Really: He was the one who decreed that the year should start in January. As you might know, the Romans had a two-faced god named Janus, who handled a variety of jobs. The god of transitions and beginnings. Also the god of doorways, which is why you can go into any hardware store and asked for “Ointment of Janus” and they’ll sell you some 4-in-1 oil for the hinge. Honest! Try it.
The reasons Julius Caesar meddled with the calendar are too complex to explain here, and we needn’t get into the complex mythology of Janus — his veneration died out with the rest of the Roman crowd, and don’t think people weren’t relieved about that. If his worship had persisted we would be offering burnt hog nostrils and pigeon tongues every 17th day to ask for Janus’ favor so the garage door opener worked. If it broke, your wife would give you that look: “And I suppose we’re caught up with Janus this month? Right? Or did you forget?”
“No, no, I offered! Maybe it’s the batteries. I’ll go sacrifice a parakeet to Rayovacus.”
Anyway. There’s plenty of historical precedent for starting the year when we do, but you have to think at least one senator who gave Caesar the business on the Senate floor muttered “and this is for starting the year at a point when nothing whatsoever is new.”
The spring equinox seems to be a better point to start the year, no? The old cold year draws its last clammy breath. The new warm year arises before us, and though we know it will end in the bleak vault of winter, the walls will fall away and we will be free again. Much better than a year that begins in the dark hole and ends in the same place.
There’s not a chance we’ll ever change the calendar, but as the Scottish poet Robert Burns said: “if ma wee gornin’ merkin a’ thitherin’ be, tarry the cup o’ the marnin’.”
Couldn’t have put it better myself.