Burns Supper, Newtown, Connecticut, USA, January 25, 2003
If everyone is Irish on St. Patrick's Day, shouldn't we all be Scots on Robbie Burns' Birthday? We have a friend who emigrated to the States from Scotland in the late Sixties. For two decades he and his wife have hosted an annual Robbie Burns Supper at their home. This year was, in fact, the 20th anniversary of their particular party. Many of this year's 30 or so guests have attended the majority, if not all, of the previous gatherings. We are fortunate to be among the "regulars" for this exercise in carrying on traditions.
There are quite a few resources out there for those who might wish to learn more about Robert Burns and the celebratory "Suppers" held on or near the anniversary of his January 25, 1759 birthday. www.robertburns.org provides thorough coverage of the basics, as well as a means of accessing products and other resources on Robert Burns, Burns Suppers and all things Scottish.
The Burns Supper we attend is certainly no highbrow, hidebound exercise in dead poet worship. Nor is it merely an excuse to drink single malt whiskies from the isles and highlands. It shares certain common attributes with most other Burns Suppers. Poems and songs by Burns should be read and sung. Toasts and discourse about Burns and Scottish culture are encouraged, be their tone academic or festively frivolous. No such event can truly call itself a Burns Supper without haggis on the menu. In recognition that haggis is, well, let's just call it an acquired taste, the Burns Supper we attend treats the haggis course as a ritual necessity, but also includes another entree course, this year poached salmon worthy of Gourmet magazine.
Like most such quintessential exercises in perpetuating a folk tradition, the Burns Supper we attend has evolved a subset of idiosyncratic traditions all its own. Most of our specific variations began either as inspired innovations which become repeated or the discovery of more widely practiced elements which we adopt and adapt to suit ourselves. This year the latter afforded me the honor of being the first at our gathering to offer the "Toast to the Lassies." Somewhat misunderstanding my assignment I spent the few days between being given this task and the Supper feverishly writing jocular japes and flowery accolades in Burnsian verse to each female expected to attend.
The Toast to the Lassies is, I came to discover, generally handled as a toast to women in general rather than specific. As I laced my effort with arcane bits of archaic Scottish pulled from the glossary of my Burns: Collected Poems and Songs (Oxford University Press, 1969), "Look it up!" quickly became an evening catch phrase. The great Burns classic "Tam O' Shanter" is read annually, this year by our host alternating with a guest reading an "English translation."
A few years ago we were privileged to experience one of the great Burns Supper traditions, a piper accompanying the ceremonial delivery of the haggis to the host, who then used a broadsword to cut it open before serving. I have attended rock band performances in mall nightclubs where the decibel level rose higher, but not by much. Bagpipes were definitely NOT designed for dinner music!
Many of the participants at our Burns Supper are musicians, including some professionals, so there is always a fair amount of music and singing. The wee young lass who was barely school age the first time I met her at a Burns Supper is now ready for college and a gifted fiddler who studied Cape Breton style on Prince Edward Island. She did a few traditional Scottish tunes along with some more modern material. While you might not be surprised to learn that the "Skye Boat Song" and "John Barleycorn" are sung each year, why the night isn't over until we've heard "Rocky Raccoon" is more of a mystery. Our Burns Supper always includes a few skits, complete with costumes that generally lead to a punning punchline.
It is important to our hosts that those who attend their Burns Supper all actively participate, not merely consume the food, drink and cultural offerings. Some provide food (this year a new participant made a killer batch of rumbledethumps ... potatoes, cabbage and cheddar) or help set up. Everyone is assigned a number and helps serve the corresponding course, affording more chances to meet and interact with other guests. This gives each of us who attend a compelling sense of belonging, of being part of this celebration, not just attending a nice dinner party and observing a bit of entertainment provided by the host. I dare say that all who attend have learned quite a bit over the years about Scotland and her best known poet, as we have also grown to know and respect a great group of talented and witty individuals.
Be it a Burns Supper or a Fourth of July hootenanny barbecue, a Summer Solstice bacchanal or Winter Solstice bonfire wassail fest, carrying on and extending traditions, connecting ourselves to the past, present and future, is something we all owe to ourselves ... and to tradition.