The History of Toasting
Merriam Webster defines a toast as, “an act of proposing or of drinking in honor of a toast.” There seems to be plenty of folklore about how the custom of toasting originated, but the one common denominator is that the toast has always involved fermented beverages. References to toasting appear in literature as far back as Homer with Ulysses drinking to the health of Achilles, according to Paul Dickson, author of Toasts: Over 1,500 of the Best Toasts, Sentiments, Blessings, and Graces. Dickson also notes that drinking to someone’s health was considered so important that the Roman Senate demanded that all diners drink to the health of Emperor Augustus before every meal.
The actual term “toast” appears to have come about some time in the late 17th century when it became customary to drop a piece of spiced, cooked bread into libations. Revelers would pass the cup around and drink until reaching the host, who would then eat the bread along with the last few drops in the glass. Some believe the bread was thought to help mellow the tone of the beverage.
Another integral part of toasting, the clinking of the glasses, came later. Wine glasses are prized not only for their beauty, but also for the sound they make. The clink symbolizes a wish to share in the good tiding being expressed, that the joining of glasses unites the individuals of the group into one.
One legend purports that the custom of clinking glasses came about due to worries about poisoning. Just watch The Tudors to know that the threat of poisoning among royalty and their enemies was very real in those early centuries. The story goes that rulers began clinking their glasses together to slosh their wine into each other’s cups, ensuring that there was no poison in the drink. That theory has pretty much been disproven, although it does sound like an interesting plot line for a murder mystery. Still another theory around the clinking of glasses stems from the desire to ward off evil spirits; the bell-like sound made from the touching of glasses was thought to drive away the devil.
Toasting also played an important role in early American politics. According to the New York Historical Society, most public occasions ended with a toast, many of which were printed verbatim in the local papers. During the era prior to and during the Revolutionary War, toasts transitioned from drinking to the health of the king to toasts of sedition and support of “General Washington, and victory to the American arms.”
There was a period when toasting was frowned upon during temperance movements dating as far back as the early 1500s. Even Louis XIV banned toasting in his court, and during puritanical times toasting was forbidden in mid-16th century Massachusetts. As society progressed, it became permissible not to consume the entire glass of alcohol at one time but rather to take a small sip as acknowledgment to the honoree.
Even Toastmasters International in 1905 took its name from the term “toastmaster,” which referred to a person who was recognized for speaking well in public and for giving toasts at banquets and other occasions.
When to Toast
Today’s toasts usually come at times of celebration, such as weddings, retirements and holidays like Christmas and New Year’s. For weddings, the father of the bride typically offers the first toast, sharing memories of his daughter’s childhood and wishes for a happy future for the newly married couple. It is also customary for the maid of honor to bestow best wishes upon the bride and the best man to offer more of a “roast” of the groom.
While many toasts are unique, there are some that have become more commonly known over the years, such as this Irish blessing ––
May the road rise up to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
Another famous toast comes from author Rudyard Kipling: “Here’s to us that are here, to you that are there, and the rest of us everywhere.”
A sentiment often said to those embarking for a new life in the Wild West was, “Here’s mud in your eye,” expressing the sentiment that farmers would find fertile soil for their crops.
Toasting has also taken on the form of song — many are familiar with the tune For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow, often sung when honoring the accomplishment of a friend or colleague. And everyone knows Auld Lang Syne, synonymous with New Year’s Eve celebrations around the world.
There’s even the story that America’s own Star Spangled Banner may have partly originated from a toasting song. It seems that Francis Scott Key penned the words to the national anthem to the melody of a song entitled To Anacreon in Heaven. The original song contains a toast in its final stanza and was sung at each meeting of London’s 18th-century Anacreontic Society. Even toasts of fictional characters have gained great cultural importance, such as Tiny Tim’s “God bless us, everyone,” in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Humphrey Bogart to Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
As common as toasting has become around the world, the traditions vary greatly from country to country. The most formal traditions are found in Eastern European nations, where meals often begin and end with a toast with many in-between. In Russia, liquor, usually vodka, is the drink of choice as opposed to wine. Many toasts are to the health of one’s guests, including the French “A votre santé,” and the German “Zum Wohl.” Asian nations also have a strong tradition of toasting with the word “Kanpai” in Japanese and “Ganbei” in Chinese, both meaning “Cheers.” And of course, there is Spain’s “Salud!”
The Greeks are known for their love of dance, often accompanied by plate smashing at a wedding, but don’t confuse the word “opa,” which means “oops,” with toasting. The term most often used by Greeks for toasting is “Stinygiasou” in informal situations and “Eis igían sas” at formal functions, both which mean “To your health.”
Contrary to popular belief, it is actually considered rude to tap one’s glass with a knife or fork to gain the guests’ attention that a toast is about to happen. It is customary, especially in larger groups, to give a toast while standing. If someone is giving a toast to a specific person, the recipient should never stand or lift their glass along with the group; rather, it is appropriate for that person to smile and give a gracious nod as everyone drinks to their health and even in some cases to rise after the toast is made to acknowledge the one offering the toast.
If many toasts are to be made, such as during a wedding, it is customary to take a small sip so as not to empty one’s glass before all the toasts are concluded. Never refuse to raise a glass to a toast; it is considered rude and might be interpreted as though you do not share in the good will expressed toward the recipient.
While most toasts involve alcohol, for the teetotalers non-alcoholic sparkling beverages are more widely available at events such as New Year’s celebrations and weddings. While it used to be unacceptable to toast with water, that custom has become more relaxed through the years; however, many consider it more appropriate to simply raise an empty glass. And it’s probably best to avoid the Russian custom of smashing the empty glass into a fireplace; the host likely won’t appreciate losing a good piece of crystal.
If asked to give a toast at a gathering, it’s a good idea to practice the speech several times before the big day arrives. Following the etiquette in Etiquette International’s Toasting – A Memorable Art, a good toast is eloquent and witty, yet succinct. Incorporating a few personal remarks, such as a relevant story or joke, is always a good idea, but the sentiment should stay within the keeping of the occasion — nothing too embarrassing for the honorees or the guests. There is no shortage of recommended toasts to be found online for any occasion that might possibly be imagined — from weddings to birthdays, births to funerals, funny to sincere.
When asked to give a toast at the spur of the moment, it’s best to keep it short and sweet with the oft-expressed “Cheers!” or “To your health,” followed by the honoree’s name. Etiquette for business toasts isn’t much different from that of personal occasions. Standing and raising a glass to gain the group’s attention or seated for a small group are perfectly acceptable. Following the toast, the person being honored can rise and say “thank you” and propose her own toast to the host or anyone else she they may want to honor.
Toasting is a time-honored tradition to express love and hope, best wishes for family and friends … and admiration for successes. So as in preparing to enter a new year, allow us at Columbia Metropolitan to raise a glass to you, our readers, and wish you a healthy and happy future!