“Cheers!” “Salud!” “Santé!” “Prost!” “L’chaim!” “Nostrovia!”
Whatever the language, whatever the occasion, raising one’s glass of wine in celebration always seems a most appropriate gesture.
The toast is invariably interpreted as “Good Health!” regardless of the occasion. Typically offered by the host of an event and followed by multiple responses, this tradition has changed little since ancient times. The Greeks reveled in it to celebrate camaraderie and the Romans basked in it to savor battles won.
When Napoleon reigned as the emperor of France, he was less interested in toasting than he was in imbibing the wine of choice for an occasion. “I drink Champagne when I win, to celebrate; and I drink Champagne when I lose, to console myself.”
Just as you do, I raise my glass to focus the attention of my guests, to engage them in the meaning of an occasion: to honor a loved one, present or past, the attainment of a status in life or a cordial gesture of welcome and friendship. However, this tradition is rooted in traditions dating back to ancient times.
Many societies employed the simultaneous raising of wine-filled glasses or the clinking of those glasses for very practical reasons. Today, the intent of a toast is solely to praise, compliment or celebrate an individual or group of individuals. However, the origins of the toast are secondary to conviviality. The primary reasons were strategic and preventive.
- A practical reason evolved in ancient Greece and Rome. Poisoning the drinking vessel of one’s enemy was an early practice. To protect a host from nefarious guests – and guests from a diabolical host – wine was served from a common jug, first to the host and then to the guests. Once the host imbibed, the guests followed, raising their vessels to celebrate the mutual trust earned.
- The Vikings and early Germanic tribes were notorious for vigorously banging drinking cups on their communal dining tables to ward off evil spirits they believed were roaming the area. Banging loudly was believed to clear the air and create a more celebratory atmosphere.
- During medieval times, diners began the practice of clinking glasses. They intended to achieve the same goals as banging cups: the clinking was thought to sound like church bells and thus would surely drive away the devil and his minions. This also served to unite the dining companions together in a gesture of intimate friendship. Clinking glasses forced close contact and, presumably, enhanced the bonding of all present.
For those of you who enjoy the current trend of historic television series, you’ve undoubtedly seen the glances of guests as they dined and imbibed with royalty at the table.
Which brings me to the origin of the term itself. How did this act of celebration come to be referred to as a toast?
The wine of ancient Romans often reeked of foul aromas or tastes. To mask these unsavory qualities, burnt bread might be added to a vat or jug of wine before serving the wine to guests.
As wine improved over the ensuing centuries, this ritual became a common practice. Shakespeare describes a stale piece of bread immersed in a jug of wine. The practice at the time was to add spices and fruit to the bread, toast it and flavor a jug of wine with it. Over time, this ritual went one step further. The tasty bread was offered to the person being honored at a dinner; the guests would then drink the “toasted” wine.
Other terms evolved from “toast.” To control the sometimes aggressive drinking at events, an individual was assigned to control the amount of alcohol being consumed. This “toastmaster” was responsible for insuring a reasonable flow of merrymaking while preventing over-toasting. And of course, an individual who was the recipient of multiple celebratory accolades or good wishes became “the toast of the town.”
The next time you raise a glass to celebrate an event or honor family and friends, remember the ancient rites you are replicating. Cheers to our ancestors.
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 20 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sharingwine.