Freemasonry behind Auld Lang Syne arm linking at new year

Research has uncovered a Masonic connection as to why revelers around the world hold arms up as they sing Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s Eve.

A study of the most popular song by Robert Burns links the practice to Freemasonry, where singing with arms crossed and hands was a parting ritual in many lodges.

University of Edinburgh musicologist Morag Grant – who published a book on the song – discovered the Masonic Link while searching the archives of Glasgow’s Mitchell Library.

A newspaper report of the Burns Supper at an Ayrshire Lodge in 1879 describes the song that was sung when the members formed the “Circle of Unity” – a common Masonic ritual also known as the “Chain of Unity”.

Dr. Grant said the tradition of singing the goodbye song with crossed hands arose in the mid-19th century not only among Freemasons but also in other fraternal organizations.

Burns was a Freemason all of his adult life, and the organization was instrumental in promoting his work during his lifetime and after his death.

Dr. Grant studied a number of historical sources – including written reports, newspaper reports, theater bills, printed music, and early recordings – to shed light on the song’s path to worldwide popularity.

“Auld Lang Syne’s views were not only resonated with the Freemasons,” she said.

“Some of the earliest accounts of the song being used in parting are from American college degrees in the 1850s.”

Within decades, the song was carried over to Japan upon graduation, where the tune – known as Hotaru no hikari – is still played in some stores after hours.

The study by Dr. Grant shows that Auld Lang Syne’s worldwide fame predates the invention of sound recording and radio, although many commentators have previously linked his rise to the beginning of the broadcast era.

Her book reports that Alexander Graham Bell used it to demonstrate the telephone in 1877, and in 1890 it was one of the first songs to be recorded on Emil Berliner’s gramophone.

The New Year’s song began to be used around the same time, mainly by the gathering of exiled Scots in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, but also by exiles living abroad.

By 1929 the tradition was so well established internationally that a line from the song was displayed on the electronic ticker at the New Year celebrations in Times Square in New York.

The Scouts also played a key role in spreading their 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.

Dr. Grant’s book Auld Lang Syne: A Song And Its Culture also explores the origins of the song and Burns’ role in creating the modern song from older models.

She said, “It is remarkable how this song, written in a language that even most Scots do not fully understand, has become synonymous with the New Year around the world.

“The many traditions and rituals associated with the song – as well as its simple, singable melody – are key to understanding its phenomenal distribution and why we still sing it today.

“Auld Lang Syne is a song about the bonds that have linked us with others over the years, and while its appeal is now global, it is deeply rooted in the world Burns lived in.”

Auld Lang Syne: A Song And Its Culture by MJ Grant is published by OpenBook Publishers and can be read online for free.

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