‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?” The first line of the 1788 poem by the Scottish bard, Robert Burns, long ago found an old, traditional folk tune to host it. Not all of the entire poem made it into our version of the song but what did will be heartily sung out again two weeks from now at the turning of the year.
Some people roughly translate auld lang syne as ‘days gone by.’ Burns penned these words when the world as we now know it was just taking shape. James Watt, a fellow Scot and contemporary, made the steam engine a practical device for powering the Industrial Revolution. Its invention along with other key innovations, marked the literally earth-shattering change of this era technologically.
This development was “subsidized by wealthy merchants who had made their money in the West India trade,” according to D.P. Mannix in his book Black Cargoes. The slave trade to the British West Indies and the flow of slave produced resources from there provided the capital which was for Mannix “the first principle and foundation of all the rest, the mainspring of the machine which sets every wheel in motion.” Slaving helped build the mills, foundries, canals and all the other basics for European industrialization.
“We two have paddled in the stream from morning till dine; But seas between us broad have roared since auld lang syne.” Fed by the coal pits and forests of world the steam engine launched a revolution in transportation. Via the steamboat and locomotive Europe wove the rough fabric of colonialism and imperialism over our planet. The outline of our current world, divided between rich and poor, powerful and marginalized, took shape.
The choices made in pursuit of wealth and power have brought us to the edge of an environmental and political abyss. The climate conference in Copenhagen is showing us again just how conflicted our world is today. The course set by the deeply entrenched system we inherited seems bent on hurtling us over the edge. But knowing where the path we are on takes us, allows us a clear choice. We can hold on to our minority consumer society illusions of endless material progress until the resources run out or are taken from us, or maybe we can come to our senses and take another direction. Putting people’s needs first in an earth sustaining fashion is not only possible, it is essential.
“And there’s a hand my trusty friend! And give us a hand o’thine! And we’ll take a right good-will draught for auld lang syne.” We ended slavery for the most part. The Dickensian ‘satanic mills’ of the Industrial Revolution gave way to the modern welfare state in most of the Global North. An emerging global environmental and social ethic proposes to cast off the rest of the old destructive system. Who’s hand will we reach out for to help us along this new uncharted way?
A very Merry Christmas to all and a peace-filled New Year in which, God willing, we will not unhappily say good riddance to the mindset the Industrial Revolution inspired. “For auld lang syne, my friend, for auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saturday, December 19 – Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights, ends. It commemorates the Maccabean recapture and re-dedication in Second century b.c.e. of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Sunday, December 20 – Fourth Sunday of Advent. A suggested reading is Luke 3:39-45.
Monday, December 21 – Winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night in northern latitudes, is celebrated in many traditions.
Thursday, December 24 – Christmas Eve – Le Revellon de Noel gathers many Canadian families together.
Friday, December 25 – Christmas Day. A suggested reading is Luke 2: 1-16