Crossing one’s arms while singing Auld Lang Syne was a Masonic farewell ritual, reveals an expert

It’s a global New Years tradition that we take for granted.

But one expert says she figured out the reason revelers bandage their arms to sing Auld Lang Syne – the melody’s connection to Freemasonry.

University of Edinburgh musicologist Morag Grant, who wrote a book on Robert Burns’ most popular song, says it was once a parting ritual among Freemasons to sing it with arms crossed and hands folded.

A newspaper report of the Burns Supper at an Ayrshire lodge in 1879 describes the members who make up the “Circle of Unity” – a common practice among Freemasons also known for secret handshakes and rituals that involve rolling up a pant leg.

University of Edinburgh musicologist Morag Grant, who wrote a book on Robert Burns' most popular song - Auld Lang Syne - says it was once a parting ritual among Freemasons to sing it with arms folded and hands folded.  (File image)

University of Edinburgh musicologist Morag Grant, who wrote a book on Robert Burns’ most popular song – Auld Lang Syne – says it was once a parting ritual among Freemasons to sing it with arms folded and hands folded. (File image)

A newspaper report of the Burns Supper at an Ayrshire lodge in 1879 describes members forming the

A newspaper report of the Burns Supper at an Ayrshire lodge in 1879 describes members forming the “Circle of Unity” – a common practice among Freemasons (file image), also known for secret handshakes and rituals that involve rolling up a pant leg

Burns, who died in 1796, was an avid Freemason and the organization was instrumental in promoting his work, says Dr. Grant.

Soon world fame, Auld Lang Syne was used at U.S. graduations in the 1850s, and went to Japan in 1881, where it is still played in some after-hours stores under the name Hotaru No Hikari.

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 feelings 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.”

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.

Burns (above), who died in 1796, was an avid Freemason and the organization was instrumental in promoting his work, says Dr.  Grant

Burns (above), who died in 1796, was an avid Freemason and the organization was instrumental in promoting his work, says Dr. Grant

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 gang that has 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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