Auld Lang Syne arm-binding to the new year connected to the Freemasons, finds of books | Scotland
Research has uncovered a Masonic connection as to why revelers around the world tie their arms when they sing Auld Lang Syne on the New Year.
A study of Robert Burns’ best-known song links the practice to Freemasonry, where singing with arms crossed and hands folded was a farewell ritual in many lodges.
Dr Morag Grant, a musicologist at the University of Edinburgh – who has published a book on the song – spotted the Masonic connection while digging through the archives of the Mitchell Library in Glasgow.
A newspaper article about the Burns Supper at an Ayrshire Lodge in 1879 describes the song sung as the members formed “the circle of unity” – a common Masonic ritual also known as the “chain of union”.
Grant said the tradition of singing the song at the time of separation, and doing it with crossed hands, arose in the mid-19th century, not only among Freemasons but also in other fraternal organizations.
Burns was a Freemason his entire adult life and the organization was instrumental in promoting his work during his lifetime and after his death.
Grant studied a range of historical sources – including written reviews, newspaper articles, theater posters, print music, and early recordings – to light the song’s path to global popularity.
“Auld Lang Syne’s feelings did not only resonate with the Freemasons,” she said.
“Some of the earliest reports of the song’s use during separation come from American college graduates in the 1850s.”
Within decades, the use of the song at graduation has spread to Japan, where the tune – known as Hotaru no Hikari – is still played when business is closed in some stores.
Grant’s study shows that Auld Lang Syne’s worldwide fame predated the invention of sound recording and radio, although many commentators have previously linked its rise to the dawn of the Age of broadcasting.
His book reports that in 1877 Alexander Graham Bell used it to demonstrate the telephone, and in 1890 it was one of the first songs recorded on Emil Berliner’s gramophone.
The use of the song on New Years emerged around the same time, mainly through Scots in exile meeting outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London, but also among emigrants living abroad.
By 1929, the tradition was so well established internationally that a line of the song was displayed on the electronic ticker during New Year’s celebrations in Times Square, New York.
Boy Scouts also played a key role in spreading his fame. The song was sung at the end of the first World Scout Jamboree in 1920 and versions in French, German, Greek and Polish soon followed.
Grant’s book, Auld Lang Syne: A Song and Its Culture, explores the origins of song and Burns’ role in creating modern song from older models.
She said: “It’s remarkable how this song, written in a language even most Scots don’t fully understand, has become so synonymous with the New Year around the world.
“The many traditions and rituals associated with the song – along with its simple, changeable tune – are essential to understanding its phenomenal spread and why we still sing it today.
“Auld Lang Syne is a song about the bonds that unite us with others over the years and although its appeal is now global, it is very ingrained in the world inhabited by Burns.”