A history of toasting

Defying the devil, wooing women and laying down loyalties – a journey into the weird and wonderful world of toasting

Every time you raise your glass and say a few positive words then take a drink, you are continuing a tradition that dates back into pre-history. Toasting, or ‘drinking a health’ as it was originally known, has been practised for thousands of years and is one of the very few things common to practically all countries and cultures. In Britain today, when we toast we go through certain rituals: someone says a few words, we clink our glasses together and shout, “Cheers!” – but where did these customs come from and how have they changed over time?

The thinking on clinking

We can’t be certain exactly when and where the custom of clinking glasses started but there are three main schools of thought. The first suggests that people wanted to enjoy their drink with all five senses. They could use their eyes to see the liquid, their noses to smell it, their tongues to taste it, their mouths to feel it and, with the clinking of the glasses, their ears to hear it.

The second maintains the early religious belief that evil spirits are scared of the sound of bells (a good reason for churches to have them). When you clink your glasses together you make the sound of a bell, which scares away the devil. This works well if the vessel is made of glass or metal but our ancestors mainly drank from a common bowl or wooden cups and wineskins. But this didn’t stop them from making a racket before drinking. Early Germanic tribes would bang their wooden tumblers on the table; Tibetans would tap loudly on the sides of their cups; Attila the Hun and his hordes even decorated their wineskins with bells and clanking metal objects, all to scare away evil spirits.

The third school turns to the Ancient Greek and Roman Empires. At the time it was quite common to try and kill an enemy by inviting him into the home and giving him a poisoned drink. So how did potential victims know if their drink was safe? If it was a large gathering the host would fill his wine goblet from the common bowl and drink it in front of all the guests, proving that the wine was safe and of good quality (this tradition still lingers on, especially when ordering wine in restaurants). If there were only a few people gathered in the house the host would pour a little of his drink into each guest’s cup, which they would then pour back into the host’s cup 
to be drunk simultaneously – proving that the drink was safe. When a 
guest was sure he could trust the host he just touched, or clinked, his glass with the host’s glass.

Cheers! over the years

The word ‘cheers’ didn’t come into use until the end of the 16th century, but its happy arrival coincided with the start of the golden age of toasting in the 17th and 18th centuries. ‘Cheers’ stems from the Old French word ‘chiere’, which meant ‘happy facial expression’, ‘good mood’, ‘good mental health’ etc. It crossed the Channel to England in the 14th century as ‘chere’. “What chere be with you?” meant, “How are you?” Over the next few hundred years this was corrupted to ‘cheers’ and was associated with hospitality and entertainment. When you said, “Cheers!” to your drinking companions you were wishing them well, wishing them good fortune and happiness. Little has changed since then beyond the spread of the use of ‘cheers’ to mean anything from thanks to goodbye and much more.

A funny way to show you care

In the 17th and 18th centuries toasting became so popular that you couldn’t go to a lunch, never mind a formal dinner, without hearing a few well-thought-out and practised toasts. Indeed, it was almost rude to take a drink in company without giving a toast.

This proliferation of toasting led to some strange practices. When toasting a woman the man would sometimes draw blood from himself and mix it with the wine before drinking it. This was meant to show how much he wanted her. Seventeenth-century students took this further and added such things as ink and ash before drinking the wine. Another way of showing feelings towards a woman was to fill her shoe with wine, then toast her finer qualities and drink 
the wine.

An ultimate toast had all participants first stand. The toast was given, in the case of the Russians, to the Tsar, and then glasses drained and thrown into a huge fireplace or smashed on the floor.

Hanging devil illustration

The ‘ultimate toast’ also came into use during this period and is usually associated with the Russians. An ultimate toast had all participants first stand. The toast was given, in the case of Russians, to the Tsar, and then the glasses drained and thrown into a huge fireplace or smashed on the floor. The thought behind this was that no lesser man than the Tsar should be toasted from the same glass. This was also practised in England when toasting the king. The Scots took this toast one step further as they would put their right foot on their chair and their left foot on the table and throw the glass over their left shoulder.

Most of the drinking and toasting that took place at dinner parties over the past few hundred years took place after the meal. This was because the women went to one room (to keep them safe from rudeness and vulgarity), and the men went to another. If some of the men wanted to challenge each other they would have a toasting contest. One would say a toast then drain his glass and the others would follow suit. This would be repeated until only one of the men remained standing. In the morning the women would often enquire as to which of their ‘champions’ had won the contest.

Secret salutations

Over the years a whole host of ‘secret’ toasts have been used to bond together drinking societies, revolutionaries and secret organisations. This usually takes the form of a toast within a toast, or an action during a toast to indicate your real intent. Unsurprisingly, few of these toasts are now known but one example is the Jacobite toast. The Jacobites were Scottish revolutionaries defeated at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 by the Hanoverian army. Their leader, Prince Charles Stuart (better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie), fled by sea to France. At official dinners in the English court when a toast was called for to the king, the Jacobites would raise their glasses and drink, but before they drank they would pass their glass over water, (usually a finger bowl on the table), signifying they were toasting their king in hiding. The king of England found out about this practice and was so angry about it that he ended up banning all finger bowls at official functions.

Diplomacy by dinner toast

Today, toasting is in decline. We seem a little embarrassed by the formality of standing and speaking in public. This may be due in part to the hijacking of this tradition by people with their own agenda, especially politicians. Many have used a ‘toast’ at formal occasions to get their political point across and others have replied with their own in mind. One such toast, 700 words long, given by Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang at the White House in 1984 was eventually used as the basis of a nuclear cooperation treaty between China and the US. Later that year Ronald Reagan was accused of “conducting diplomacy by dinner toast” but the story shows how far toasting had come from humble beginnings. Customs may have changed over the centuries but toasting has survived as a platform to express one’s thoughts and feelings. So, lift your glass, make yourself heard and add your twist to the strange custom of toasting.