There are a handful of literary holidays scattered throughout the year, but Burns Night is a singularly delightful one.
To begin at the beginning, Burns Night is generally celebrated on January 25th, to correspond with Robbie Burns’ birthday. The Poetry has a nice overview of Burns: his life, his poems, and their place in Scottish and English literary movements. You probably don’t want to tell a Scotsman that Burns has a place in the English literary tradition since he is the National Poet of Scotland (And this isn’t a post about Scottish independence. I’m not so foolish as to wade into that on a library blog). You can’t deny his influence on the poets to the south of him and after his time, however. For those on campus, we have a small selection of Burns in the Newman Room.
How does one go about hosting a Burns Night/Burns Supper/Burns day celebration? Since we’re in the US, there won’t be any real haggis, so a modified one with have to do (until the ban is lifted, as many of my acquaintances and friends fervently hope it will be soon). There are a number of Scottish dishes to prepare for Burns night. Fortunately for us, the power of the internet brings us a menu and recipes directly from Scotland. In fact, the Scots have put together a full guide to Burns Night: food, drink, wardrobe, even an app to download that contains the poetry of Robert Burns and an outline of which poems to recite when.
And what, exactly, will you get yourself into? Burns Country has the itinerary:
- Gather, meet and mingle
- Start the meal with the Skelkirk Grace, followed by the first course of soup (and whiskey)
- The Parade of the Haggis– really, you ought to have it piped in if at all possible. Its marvelous.
- Address to a Haggis– Don’t worry, its one of Burns’ poems, you needn’t make up your own. Make sure you have your dirk at the ready.
- Immortal Memory– about the only serious point in the evening. Now’s the time for a speech about Robert Burns- general, biographical, poetic analysis are all allowed, and the speech is usually on the longer side: up to half an hour. Youtube has a number of taped speeches from Burns Societies and Burns nights around the world, and its worth watching a selection to get a feel for what you’d like to say.
- Songs and recitations– many of Burns’ poems have been turned into songs, so these will be fairly easy to find at any of the sources linked to. That’s not to say this is the only time to sing or recite. Usually, there will be songs and recitations sprinkled through the remainder of the evening. “Musts” (though everyone’s list is different) include Tam O Shanter, Address to the Unco Guild, To A Mouse, To a Louse, Holy Willie’s Prayer, Ae fond Kiss, My Luve is like a Red, Red Rose.
- Toast to the Lassies– originally a toast to the ladies in thanks for the meal, the toast or address to the lassies is generally a humorous take on womankind or any variety of topics. It is not meant to be offensive or crude and men beware, the reply is next!
- Reply (or Toast) to the Laddies/Reply from the Lassies– whatever you call it, the women receive the last word. Also meant to be lighthearted and funny without giving offense, it is not uncommon for those delivering the toasts to collaborate beforehand so that the toasts compliment each other. If you can do it on the fly, then by all means do!
- Closing– after the speeches your night can continue for as long as you choose with singing, dancing, and recitations but once the evening is drawing to a close, it is customary for the host to say a few words of farewell and for all to then sing Auld Lang Syne. Depending on the quantities of whiskey and ale drunk, you may want to have copies of the lyrics available.