Burns Night: an annual ritual that celebrates the life and commemorates the death of one of Scotland’s best loved writers. Why does he get his own night? After all, England doesn’t have a Shakespeare night, and America doesn’t have a Stephanie Myers Eve. Well, the answer is that Burns wasn’t just a writer, he’s a sort of poet laureate for all things Scottish, and Burns’ Night doesn’t just celebrate the life of a man, but the heart of a nation. And whisky, obviously, because the best stereotypes are the ones worth holding on to.
If you’re in the mood for commemorating a writer, acknowledging your Scottish ancestry, or even if you just want to get drunk and eat terrible food while not wearing pants, there are certain things you must have ready…
Nobody knows why the bagpipes were invented, but many scholars believe they were a fledgling development in sonic weaponry. However, it is Burns Night, and one of the few occasions where you must pretend that bag-pipes are uplifting and tuneful and not, as it were, a passive aggressive way to punch you in the ear. The pipes will be employed to “Pipe in the Guests” (not to be confused with a Futurama style method of transportation) and to “Pipe in the Haggis”, because if you’re going to eat Haggis then a burst ear drum is probably the least of your worries.
A celebration in Scotland wouldn’t be a celebration if it didn’t involve their biggest export. Known as aqua vitae– The Water of Life- the Scottish popularised whiskey in the 15th century, and they’ve been celebrating with it ever since. Legend has it that one day the celebration will end, and then they will be forced to sober up, leading to the Hangover of the End Times. In the mean time, you’ll need plenty of whiskey to facilitate the toasting, dancing and possibly fighting of Burns’ Night.
You’ve probably heard the rumors by now; isn’t haggis just a jumble of internal organs cooked up inside another internal organ? Well, yes, but what you have to realize is that while it may sound like a Klingon’s wedding feast , it’s really just a different kind of sausage. Really, you just have to think of a Haggis as a giant, oily, Hulked-out hotdog. Still not appetizing, I know, but that’s what the whiskey is for.
What’s really creepy about the haggis is the Scottish mythology surrounding it– insisting to their children that the haggis is actually a kind of rare creature that looks like a giant testicle with legs and a human face. Either Scottish children have a robust sense of humor, or else just aren’t particularly fussy eaters.
It’s probably no coincidence that the Burns supper often begins with the Selkirk Grace;“Some hae meat and canna eat, And some was eat that want it; But we hae meat, and we can eat, And sae let the Lor be thankit.”
Which loosely translates into “Shut up and eat your haggis.”
Every party needs a host, but at a Burns Night your duties are going to be a little more demanding than ensuring the bowl of cheese-puffs remains plentiful. For a start you have to make a couple of speeches, and you’ll have to make them in the Scots language. Not to be confused with Gaelic, the Scots language is more of an English language dialect (but for god’s sake don’t tell that to a Scotsman on Burns Night. You may as well tell him that Braveheart wasn’t a historical documentary). To get well practiced in the Scots language, buy a copy of Trainspotting and read it aloud in the same voice that Christopher Lambert uses in Highlander. Take a shot of whiskey every time somebody swears. By the time you reach the third chapter you should be roaring along like an old pro. Or at least roaring, at any rate.
There are few important speeches you have to make as host, but the most important is the Address to the Haggis– a poem by Robert Burns, who apparently loved haggis so much he felt its merits could only be justified in no less than eight versus. Think about that– when was the last time you loved a food so much you wrote an eight verse poem about it? Where is your Ode to Ribs? Your Sonnet to Seven Layers? For shame.
Haggis may look like a teleportation accident, but by God you’re going to talk it up like it’s dating your sister. Here’s a sample verse to get you started;“Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.”
Just keep repeating that verse as practice. It won’t take long for the words to lose all meaning, if indeed there was any meaning there in the first place.
At Least a Passing Familiarity With Robert Burns
We have a long, proud history of taking national celebrations and enjoying all the good bits while ignoring all the important bits, but with Burns Night you pretty much have to have a familiarity with Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns. As the Scottish nation’s greatest cheerleader, and the most well-known of Scots-language authors, his works are entrenched in the celebration with a whole section of the evening dedicated to the singing of his songs and the discussion of his works. So make sure you bone up on some of the classics like A Man’s a Man, Parcel o’ Rogues, To a Mouse or Tam o’ Shanter.
If this seems like hard work, then you can rely on knowing at least one Burns Night tradition, because chances are you partook in it twenty-five days earlier. Auld Lang Syne, while maybe not a true Robert Burns composition, is often sang at the end of a Burns Night while everybody joins hands. Probably by the end of the evening you’ll have toasted so many things that you’ve forgotten what year it is anyway, so this won’t seem too bizarre.
Steve may not be a full-blooded Scotsman, but he can get drunk in a skirt with the best of ’em. You can find more from him at DeadPixel Publications.
Or you can learn about some more bizarre Brit holidays with Steve in What The Heck is Lammas Day?