Colorful Tidbits on the History of Toasting

Toasting — celebratory drinking combined with the speaking of blessings, sentiments, pledges or vows is an ancient tradition. In cultures all over the world, people drink together to celebrate meaningful moments, honor important people and establish bonds of friendship.

Toasts are called toasts by us today because in ancient times it was the custom among the Greeks and Romans to float toasted bread in an oversized wine goblet that was shared among all the guests as an expression of sharing, friendship and trust. Even today we still call such oversized goblets a “loving cup”.

A wish for good health for all assembled would be spoken and the communal cup pass to each guest for a hearty sip. After the guests, the cup was passed to the host, who would drain the dregs and eat the wine-soaked bread — the “toast” which was thought to be specially infused with blessings and bounty.

Toastmaster and historian Paul Dickson writes that at the time of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, drinking to another’s health was such a potent concept that the Roman Senate passed a law that everyone must drink to the health of the Emperor before every meal. The Roman politician and general Fabius Maximus were similarly heavy-handed when he seized power, officially decreeing that Roman citizens toast to his health before their own.

In the northern lands, southern-style toasting combined with an ancient tree fertility blessing called wassail.  If you’ve ever gone caroling, you’ve participated in a less rowdy form of this Hyperborean tradition, which is yet today called “wassailing”. The word comes from the Old English waes hael and means something like “Be well!” Hael is like our word ‘hale’ – like “hale and hearty!” Today we might say “To your health!”

Bands of half-drunk townspeople would go door-to-door wassailing – singing, making-merry and bringing good luck and good cheer for the householders who received them with – you guessed it, more drinks! The traditional offering was a big urn or milk pail of hot, spiced wine floated with the last seasonal fruits and the ever-present toast. Sometimes the recipe would be made even more hale and hearty with the addition of clotted cream, whatever that is, and eggs. This drink was called “lambswool” although no one is quite sure why.

The house-to-house partiers brought their own cups and dipped right into the bucket of booze. After everyone had taken a portion, the man of the house would raise his cup and shout “Waes hael!” and the revelers would shout back, “Drinc hael!” which means “drink to be well” — and then bottoms up. That’ll warm your innards!

The custom of toasting spread throughout the Britain Isles and Europe and became firmly entrenched in popular culture, particularly among men.  In the eighteenth century, men formed clubs where they met together, drank, and discussed the news and politics of the day. Having for thousands of years been mostly about blessings of health or pledging of vows, the toast suddenly took a new turn, becoming overtly political.

J Roach’s The Royal Toastmaster which was published in 1791 and promises “Toasts Old and New to give brilliancy to Mirth and make the joys of the Glass supremely agreeable” offers up a raft of historic patriotic and political admonitions with a few particularly eyebrow-raising examples:

  • May complete responsibility, attach to every public office!
  • May timely and adequate reforms, prevent the necessity of revolutions!
  • May the freedom of election be preserved, the trial by jury maintained, and the liberty of the press secured to the latest posterity!

 

Can you imagine standing up to offer such a toast at a party today? Wow. Your mother would tell you you’d drunk too much and should sit down.

And then there’s this little gem:

  • Short shoes and long corns to the enemies of Great Britain!

Ouch!

Even Klingon warriors of Star Trek toast. When a Klingon band of brothers raises cups together they shout the good old fashioned ritual Klingon toast ‘IwlIj jachjaj  which translates “May your blood scream!” Of course, when celebrating among humans, with their delicate sensibilities, a Klingon host might rather toast with a loud Qapla’ — which although it sounds rather like a sneeze, means “Success!” or “Good luck!”

Toasts are everywhere, even out in the galaxy and in the future. Go figure! So whether you shout “May your blood scream” or “To your health!” Holler Cheers! Cin-Cin! L’chaim! Prost! Santé! Şerefe! Skál! or simply say Salut! – when you clink your glasses and take a sip, know that you are participating in an ancient and powerful tradition of community, trust, and friendship: to raise a glass with family and friends and share the love by making a toast.

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