Offering a toast at holiday gatherings of family and friends is said to have begun with the Greeks. However, our Greek ancestors considered the toast a precautionary step before drinking to avoid being poisoned, a longtime favorite way to dispose of an enemy. To ensure that those drinking the wine would not be poisoned, the host first sipped the libation, and then all raised their cups and drank. This ritual soon became a sign of friendship since, if the drink were poisoned, the host was willing to take it “on the chin,” so to speak, for his friends.
The Romans, too, adopted the toasting ritual as a precautionary step but added a piece of toasted bread to their cups, giving the practice its present name. Floating a piece of burnt toast on top of the wine took away some of the acidity and sharpness of the drink, back when wine wasn’t as good as it is today.
Other sources claim the custom of covering the beverage with a piece of toast dates back as far as 6th century B.C. As the bowl was passed around the table, each person lifted the toast, took a sip, said a few words, and passed the vessel on. When it reached the person being toasted, the honoree got to eat the saturated toast, with the added notion that the person honored had also added flavor.
Accordingly, by the early 18th century a new tradition was added to the custom: to drink to the health of a famous person or king. This, as you may already have guessed, was the origin of being known as “the toast of the town” (Edward Hays, The Old Hermit’s Almanac).
Toasts may be solemn, sentimental, humorous, even insulting, but there are norms and etiquette for toasting. The practice of announcing one’s intention to make a toast by signaling for quiet and rapping on a glass, while common, nonetheless is regarded by some authorities as rude. Except in small, informal gatherings, a toast is offered standing, with the host given the first opportunity to honor the guest. And putting one’s glass down before the toast is complete, or simply holding the glass without drinking, is widely regarded as impolite. It is acceptable, however, to participate in a toast by drinking water.
While the physical and verbal ritual of the toast may be elaborate or informal, merely raising one’s glass toward someone or something and then drinking essentially is a toast as well, the message being one of goodwill toward the person or thing indicated.
The International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture says toasting “is probably a secular vestige of ancient sacrificial libations in which a sacred liquid was offered to the gods: blood or wine in exchange for a wish, a prayer summarized in the words ‘long life’ or ‘to your health.’”
So when relatives and revelers come together during the holidays in the ritual of raising their glasses for a toast, remember they are offering up their love and friendship, so don’t poison them!
Here’s a toast from
an old Irish Proverb:
“There are good ships,
And there are wood ships,
The ships that sail the sea.
But the best ships,
And may they always be.”