There exist only a few of what I would call “secular hymns” that are commonly sung.
Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home,” gurgled out in half-remembered words by the small city of whiskey-spilling gamblers assembled at Churchill Downs every year for the Kentucky Derby would count as one.
“Auld Lang Syne” is another. This promise to keep our long-held friendships in mind as the time ticks by is mostly unintelligible when brayed by those leaning against one another at the stroke of midnight. I think most of the revelers are unaware that they are actually quoting a song written in 1788 by famed Scottish poet Robert Burns—or, at least most of it was written by him, since he admitted to lifting some of it. Upon setting down their glasses and stumbling home to their awaiting hangovers, I’d wager that most folks continue not thinking about Robbie Burns for the rest of the year.
There is a fine and dedicated group, however, for whom the revelry of New Year’s Eve is but a prelude to the real party: Burns Night. Burns Night, naturally, celebrates the life of the bard, hopefully on or around his birthday, Jan. 25. (He would have turned 258 this year.)
The world seems pretty evenly divided between the uninitiated (twiddling away their days in ignorance) and those in the know about this traditionally boozy holiday. Among the cognoscenti one finds a depth of fervor usually reserved for team sports or arguments about barbecue. This enthusiasm is nothing new; folks began celebrating the poet at the start of the 19th century and haven’t stopped.
It was only a few years ago that I peeked behind the curtain and became versed in the ways of a Burns Night celebration. I was tapped by the unacknowledged legislators of the town I lived in at the time (the pipe and drum corps) to deliver the keynote at their annual event honoring the bard. I had, up until that time, no knowledge of the love that beat so vibrantly in the hearts of many for the Scottish poet.
Perhaps you’ve been invited to one of these soirées as well. Perhaps you’d like to throw your own Burns Night toast. Perhaps you’d just like to know what is going on at that rented hall down the way. Here’s what I learned.
There will be bagpipes. From the moment the revelry commences, when the guests first brave the threshold, there will be bagpipes playing.
There are many speakers and forms of entertainment. There will be some remarks at the start welcoming you to dinner, and the Selkirk Grace will be said. Robbie Burns didn’t write it, but he said it once, which gives you a taste of how people feel about him. It goes: “Some hae meat and canna eat, And some wad eat that want it, But we hae meat and we can eat, Sae let the Lord be thankit.”
There’s soup, probably cock-a-leekie.
The bagpipes will wheeze to life once more, and the haggis will be marched in and ceremoniously sabered. Haggis is not as bad as it sounds, nor is it so good as to deserve the devotion it receives. If you’re one of those folks who don’t like to know what’s in the sausage, don’t ask. It can be delightful, though no one would ever accuse its inventor of having an eye for presentation.
Then comes a series of toasts, the first being an address to the immortal memory (celebrating the bard), followed by an address to the lassies (who were celebrated by the bard), after which the ladies will have a chance to respond.
Throughout the evening there will then be readings, songs, and music.
The whole thing will be liberally sauced with Scotch. Whisky will be spilled on the haggis. It will be raised at every juncture. It will flow like the River Nith flows through Burns’s old farm in Dumfries. Your glass will be filled and filled again, which is fitting, for that was how Robbie would have had it. After all, he was given a marble punch bowl by his father-in-law. The first time Robbie said he’d marry Jean, her father fainted and sent her to live in another town, probably because Robbie had already knocked her up, despite recently fathering a child with his mother’s servant.
I suppose Burns’s relationship with his in-laws must have improved or, perhaps, the heavy punch bowl was to ensure that his drinking would be anchored to their home. Either way, those who gathered around that punch bowl, which is now in the collection of the British Museum, found it, according to James Curry’s 1800 book, The Works of Burns, “again and again emptied and replenished.” Until “the guests of our poet forgot the flight of time, and the dictates of prudence.”
Prudence will, indeed, again be forgotten this Wednesday. The whole evening might strike you as a little silly, but walk softly. Burns Night is fun, and it’s meant to be light, but no one is kidding. Like one of those frivolous hobbies that consume retired men and command their attention without irony or remove—remote control aircraft come to mind—the Burns Night festivities are both patently, intentionally absurd and taken deeply to heart. The poetry of Robert Burns could be said to strike the same complex chord. For this is a man who wrote a poem to haggis and called it “Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race.”
Put it this way: you may laugh with the Haggis, but you may not laugh at the haggis.