Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and days of auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
(From the Scottish ballad, as revised by Robert Burns, 1788)
Literally translated as “old long ago,” but better rendered as “the good old days,” Auld Lang Syne is sung at the stroke of midnight on January 1st in virtually all English-speaking countries. Even if these lyrics emphasize looking backward, the very namesake of January—the god Janus—is depicted with two faces, looking forward and backward simultaneously.
Celebrations of the new year are among the oldest of all festivals, and date back to at least 2000 BC, when the Babylonian year began on the first new moon after the vernal equinox. The Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Persians began their year with the autumn equinox, the Greeks with the winter solstice, and in 153 BC, the Roman calendar switched its beginning from March 1 to January 1.
The practice of making resolutions as the new year dawns is also ancient, and merits some discussion.
Starting with the most obvious fallacy of these resolutions: If one harbors such a grand idea for self-improvement, why wait until January 1st to start it? Moreover, since a goodly number of these resolutions will involve losing weight, for many folks that will have to be postponed for a day or so as the parties and football games with their copious snacks loom large.
At least in this case, then, the resolution is a good idea just as long as it does not affect what one really needs to do right now.
Often, the weight loss resolution is tied in with the general notion of getting into shape, and frequently this means joining a local health club. Longtime club members always notice that the facilities become more crowded at the end of the first week in January, and just as predictably pare down to normal by the middle of February. Locker room cynics peg the transition to Groundhog Day, and joke that the newbies disappear back into their holes.
Perhaps there is a reason for all the failed resolutions. and that could be time of year itself. While January 1st can be a festive enough day, there are few places in the northern hemisphere in which the month of January—the battleground of resolutions—is uniformly pleasant.
Shakespeare’s “winter of our discontent” meant something different altogether, but there is no getting around the fact that January can be a pretty gloomy time, and hardly a propitious setting to start something new, or get rid of bad habits. Thus, many would-be dieters soon fall back into comfort foods, and those who would go to the health clubs are put off by frigid early mornings and winter driving conditions.
Those who have resolved to be kinder to their spouses, children, or co-workers can find it difficult to do so, in light of their own depressed mood. And, as they try harder to overcome their own mood, frustration sets in, often leading to wholesale abandonment of their worthy resolution.
Am I suggesting that strength of character cannot overcome such obstacles? Not at all, but there is little advantage in attempting to do something virtuous, while at the same time piling on distractions and hardships, that virtually guarantee failure. Indeed, some have maintained that the whole idea of the resolutions is nothing more than an affectation whereby an easy and inevitable defeat is registered, allowing a return to business as usual.
All the more reason to make those changes in your life without the very artificial boundary of a new calendar year.