Those of us who are able to stay awake long enough to celebrate at midnight on New Year’s will probably sing or at least hear a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne”. This is an old tradition, but many don’t realize its origin. 

Auld Lang Syne was an 18th century Scots poem written by Robert Burns. Translated to modern day English, it means “The Olden Days.” It was adapted as a drinking song and sung as a toast to remembering old times with old friends on special occasions.

Bandleader Guy Lombardo was inspired to adopt Auld Lang Syne as the theme song for a radio program that starred his Royal Canadians after he was informed that one of the sponsors was Robert Burns Cigars (above). Lombardo explained to the New York Times in 1976: “As kids, we lived in a big Scottish settlement—London, Ontario—and they always closed an evening by playing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ before the traditional ‘God Save the King.’” The band played the song to start and end every show and first used it as a New Year’s celebratory tune after the clock struck midnight in 1928. Ringing in the new year with Auld Lang Syne became a 50-year tradition for Guy and his band that carried over into his annual New Year’s Eve television performances broadcast from the Roosevelt Grill and later the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

In 1930, Lombardo and his wife, Lilliebell Glenn, moved to New York and eventually settled in a house on the water in Freeport, Long Island. Guy loved to compete in boat races and kept his speedboat at a nearby marina. He was tapped by none other than Robert Moses to be the musical director of the Jones Beach Theater in its heyday and also co-owned a popular waterside restaurant. Today, the marina that hosted his boat as well as the street on which he lived are named after him. He was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2007.

Dick Clark introduced New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in 1972 as an alternative program targeting a younger audience, but Guy’s program won the ratings war. Guy passed away in 1977 and the Royal Canadians disbanded 2 years later. But one of their vintage recordings of Auld Lang Syne was selected as the official music of the Times Square festivities in 2002 and its plaintive melody has been heard immediately after the ball drop every year since. Comedian Steve Allen once remarked, “Just as Santa Claus owns Christmas, Guy Lombardo owns New Year’s Eve.” Guy’s influence on how we celebrate the dawn of a new year will likely endure for many years to come.