Why I Celebrate Robert Burns’ Birthday

Robert Burns statue in Central Park, NYCEvery night at the dinner table we had a tradition. We’d finish eating dinner, then Dad would read a brief devotional, then Mom would read a chapter from a novel. (We got through Lord of the Rings that way, for example.)

January 25, though, was an exception. On January 25, Mom wouldn’t reach for the current novel. Oh no. Instead, she’d walk into the family room and pick up a dusty book of poetry, which was always opened exactly once a year on that dread night.

“Ahem,” Mom would say. “To a Mouse.”

The rest of us looked at each other in horror.


“NOOOOO! Make it stop!”



The funny thing is, I think pretty much all of us hated poetry. In fact, my mother the math major took special pride in the fact that she only had to take one literature class in undergrad. It just so happened that it happened to be a course on Scottish literature, and Mom just so happened to take pride in the fact that she had a Great (possibly Great Great) Grandfather who happened to be Scottish.

(In contrast, I never took math in college, and only took two science courses.)

Hence: Robert Burns Day in the Eldred household. Because clearly there wasn’t enough suffering in the world.

And then, when she got through “AN’ GUESS AN’ FEAR,” she would go into the basement and pull out her bagpipes.

No joke.

Oddly enough, this tradition was strangely impactful to my life. When a visiting author spoke at my middle school, I actually knew the reference he made to “To a Louse” (“O would some Power the giftie give us/To see ourselves as others see us.”) When we actually studied his work in high school, I didn’t have to mentally wrangle the dialect. When I had to write a poetry report, I had a go-to choice, a known entity. When we read Of Mice and Men, I didn’t have to look up the source of the title. And I think it eventually made poetry less scary. Because if you can work your way through Scottish brogue in poems about field mice and insects on a woman’s hat in church, then Milton and Shakespeare and Donne are a breeze by comparison.

So, Mom, if you’re reading this, clearly it’s all your fault I became an English major.

For everyone else, enjoy this pretty rockin’ rendition of one of his songs.

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