Poetry comes to life on this winter evening. The words of Scotland’s national poet, penned more than 200 years ago, once again float through the air as Burns Night is celebrated. Each year on January 25, suppers in honour of Robert Burns are held all over Scotland, with people reviving his well-known words and celebrating Scottish identity (there might be one or two glasses of whisky involved, too).

Even those who haven’t heard of Robert Burns before probably know his song “Auld Lang Syne”, which is traditionally sung on Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year’s Eve, and all across the English-speaking world. Scotland’s ‘Bard’ was born on January 25, 1759 in Alloway, Ayrshire to poor tenant farmers. Although he and his six siblings had to work on the family farm, their father wanted his children to read and learn as well. Considering Burns’s gift for words, that was really lucky: At the age of 15, he already wrote his first love poems, and 12 years later he became something of a celebrity after the publication of his first collection of poetry, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Burns could not enjoy his success for long, however: He died in 1796, aged 37. He is remembered as a proud Scotsman and as an advocate for social equality.

Five years after he died, some of his closest friends gathered at Burns Cottage in Alloway to mark the anniversary of his death. They ate haggis, performed some of their friend’s poems and gave a speech in his honour. Because the evening was such a success, they decided to hold another dinner in memory of Burns, this time on his birthday – and so the tradition was born.

Although Burns Supper can also still be a casual get-together among friends, it has gained a bit more pomp over the years. A typical running order involves a few words of welcome by the host, after which the “Selkirk Grace” is said – in Scots, of course:

Some hae meat and canna eat,

And some wad eat that want it,

But we hae meat and we can eat,

And sae the Lord be thankit.

Afterwards, the haggis – a traditional Scottish meal made of sheep’s pluck – is served to piping music, and the host recites the “Address to a Haggis”, preferably in an emotional rendering. Some people say that the skin of the haggis should be cut before serving it to prevent incidents with flying bits of haggis, while others insist this is all part of the fun… Whichever way you go about it, everyone then toasts this iconic Scottish dish before the main course and dessert are served.

A fervent Address to a Haggis. | Photo: Getty Images

After all this feasting, there are several recitals of Burns poems and the “Immortal Memory”, the tribute speech to the poet. Amid the mostly serious commemorating, the “Toast to the Lassies”, i.e. to the women who are present, and the ensuing “Reply to the Toast to the Lassies” provide some opportunity for cheeky humour. Finally, at the end of the evening, the host speaks a few words of thanks and then everyone stands and sings “Auld Lang Syne” in a heartfelt conclusion to an evening full of poetry and provisions.

“Auld Lang Syne” continues to be an important song in the English-speaking world. Watch it sung in the final scene of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, a staple of American culture.