Drinking doesn’t half invoke weird traditions and protocols. The ritualistic order to Holiday suppers, dinner parties, or even drinks with your buddies on a Friday night all revolve round is quite frankly perplexing.
Universal drinking etiquettes are firmly embedded within our drinking culture and, unless you want to be scorned at by your fellow drinkers, must be strictly upheld at all times. These range from- “OH MY GOD, you didn’t look into someone’s eyes when saying cheers!”, to, “You forgot to clink my glass you b**tard”! The look of horror and disgust some of your companions display is quite laughable for the unfamiliar, but where did these traditions come from?
Drinking sessions and excess
Undoubtedly drinking has been the cornerstone of human socialisation for thousands of years. The ancient Chinese made wine from rice and grapes; the Mayans made pulque from fermented corn; the Celts got tipsy on mead; and the Mongols drank kumis from fermented mare’s milk. Wine, for the ancient Greeks, was a pillar of civilisation, to the point where Greek teetotalers were viewed with suspicion.
Water-drinking, the Greeks believed, made people surly, curmudgeonly, and over-earnest. Wine-drinkers, in contrast, were convivial, creative, passionate, and fond of intellectual discourse. The original Greek symposium—nowadays a staid, scholarly affair—was once a drinking party
Wine, at Greek gatherings, was served in a krater—a large central urn, the equivalent of a modern punch bowl, from which guests filled their cups. The Greek poet and statesman Eubulus, writing in the 4th century BC, states that after three kraters of wine, the wise guests go home. Subsequent kraters lead to nothing but trouble: the fifth, he writes, leads to yelling, the sixth “to prancing about, and the seventh to black eyes. The eighth brings the police, the ninth vomiting, the tenth insanity and hurling the furniture.”
Excess alcohol consumption was often, rather than an inadvertent drinking-party by-product, a deliberate aim. Early medieval Anglo-Saxon bashes featured round-bottomed drinking glasses, designed to be emptied, since they could not be set down. Guests drained their cups and then turned them upside-down on the table.
In the UK during 18th century, the rowdy Prince Regent (later King George IV) instituted the practice of snapping the stems off wine glasses at parties, to ensure that his guests always drank the whole thing. In sum, the practise of drinking in excess led to what we now class as ‘toasting’ and ‘traditions’ to form.
Dispelling common myths
For starters, I’ll dispel some common myths.
You may have heard that the tradition of toasting originated out of a fear of poisoning– the idea being that clinking two glasses together would cause the liquid from both to spill into one another; another is that early Europeans felt the sound helped to drive off evil spirits. Yet another claim asserts that the “clink” served as a symbolic acknowledgment of trust among imbibers who did not feel the need to sample each others’ drinks to prove them unadulterated.
While the poisoning of enemies has long been part of the ordinary mayhem of the world, the practice of touching of one’s filled glass to those of others when participating in a toast is unrelated to suspicion of the wine’s having been tampered with; such killings were not so common at any point in the past that a signal to one’s host indicating he was clear of suspicion of attempted murder needed to be enshrined in the canon of social gestures.
Secondly, while making a racket for the purpose of scaring off evil spirits underpins other customs that carry over to this day (e.g., the tolling of church bells at weddings, and the loud shouts and noisemaking at the stroke of twelve on New Year’s Eve), the “clink” is a relatively new aspect of toasting and, as such, came along well after folks had relinquished the notion that demons both lurked in every corner of typical day-to-day existence and could be sped on their way by a bit of noise.
Honouring the Gods, rulers and health
The first evidence of ‘toasting’ as such came around the time of the Greeks, who would offer libations to the Gods as a ritualistic practice, as well as make a point of drinking to each other’s health.
Evidence of this can be found in The Odyssey when Ulysses drinks to the health of Achilles. The Romans placed such an importance on drinking to health that at one point in time the Senate passed a decree that stated that all must drink to Emperor Augustus at every meal.
The poet Martial, who wrote snarky verses in the first century CE, described a Roman party practice in which each guest was compelled to drink as many glasses of wine as there were letters in his mistress’s name-a major challenge for those involved with a Proserpina or Messalina. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire even describes a feast where Attila the Hun indulges in at least three toasts for every course.
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain, the first recorded toast in England took place in 450 CE, at a feast given in honor of British King Vortigern by Hengist, leader of his Saxon allies. Hengist’s daughter Renwein (Rowena) offered a goblet of wine to the king, saying “Louerd King, waes hael!”—“Good health!”—after which both drank. (Vortigern, swept off his feet, promptly proposed marriage.)
The term ‘Toasting’
The term “toast” itself originated in the 16th century. One of the first written accounts of it was in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor when the character of Falstaff demands – “Go fetch me a quart of sack; put a toast in’t.” To translate, he’s asking for a great deal of wine with a piece of (literal) toast in it.
Toast in wine?! I hear you cry! It was actually quite a common practise at the time. This is thought to be due to the quality of wine in the past- it was in many cases inferior to our modern vintages. Thus, placing a piece of toast within a jug was supposed to soak up some of the acidity and improve the flavour. This also had the side benefit of giving people something to do with a piece of stale bread, often spiced or with fruit embedded, that would improve the bread’s palatability. Up until very recently in history, wasting food just wasn’t something people tended to do, so finding ways to make stale bread taste good was fairly common- waste not, want not. (This was also more or less how French Toast got its start.)
Over the coming centuries, the term “toasting”, in English, slowly transformed to incorporate traditional libations and the honouring of people. In the early days of this connection, the person being honoured often received the physical toast saturated with wine at the end.
The custom of sealing with booze expressions of good wishes for the health of others led to a certain sense of camaraderie often involved shared drinking vessels with one and another.
The clinking of individual cups or glasses as a proof of trust wouldn’t have meant much when everyone drank from the same bowl. Indeed, in those cultures where shared drinking containers was the norm, to produce one’s own vessel in such company was to communicate an unmistakable message of hostility and distrust; it would have been regarded as akin to bringing along a food taster to sample the repast.
Toasting,” our term for the pronouncement of benedictions followed by a swallowing of alcohol, is believed to have taken its name from a practice involving a shared drinking vessel
However in modern times toasting has become a matter of imbibing from individual drinking vessels rather than from one shared flagon, so to compensate for the sense of unity lost in doing away with the sharing of the same cup we have evolved the practice of simultaneously drinking each from our own glass when a toast is made, thereby maintaining a communal connection to the kind words being spoke.
Yet beyond mere aural pleasure, the act of touching your glass to that of others is a way of emphasizing that you are part of the good wishes being expressed, that you are making a physical connection to the toast
Eye catching toasts
Elaborate drinking games soon became interwoven with the toasting ritual, and most of them seem to have been designed to impress the ladies.
One of the more “charming” examples of this involves a gentleman cutting himself, mixing the blood with his drink and then toasting to his lady of choice in order to prove his devotion. Shakespeare is once again our authority when it comes to this particular early, bizarre toasting practice. In The Merchant of Venice the King of Morocco talks of stabbing himself and then laments –
I stabbed my arm to drink her health,
The more fool I, the more fool I.
Unsurprisingly, the sheer excess of these practices, and drunkenness that often ensued, lead to anti-toasting clubs and movements. Although they were unsuccessful, the eventual result was toasting becoming more of a civilized, restrained and intellectual pursuit, rather than one purely designed for imbibing alcohol.
This is one of the main reasons why “Toastmasters” came into being. Toasting became so popular in the 17th and 18th centuries that Toastmasters were a regular addition to any dinner party. Acting as a kind of party referee, they were there to ensure that the toasting didn’t become too excessive and that everyone got their fair share of toasting opportunities
If left to their own devices, guests would occasionally go on toasting every individual in the room. (This being a great excuse to drink excessive amounts of alcohol without seeming like a lush.)
However due to the Toastmaster’s influence within our culture, drinking directly after a toast is now more restrained, often just a sip, and more reminiscent of its roots – a practice used to honour someone in a respectful and revered manner, rather than a great excuse to get drunk
Eye contact whilst toasting was a direct consequence of both Toasmasters and also courting. Toasting, advised a mid-19th-century etiquette manual, should be done “quietly and unobtrusively;” the honored lady should “catch the person’s eye and bow with politeness,” then “smile with an air of great kindness.” In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart’s best and last toast to Ingrid Bergman—“Here’s looking at you, kid”—was a matter of eye contact, with not a glass of wine in sight.
Not only is standing a symbolic gesture of respect and reverence toward those whom you are toasting towards, but related is the tradition of the loving cup, in which a large two-handled cup is passed from diner to diner, with each in turn taking a drink.
Traditionally guests stand up three at a time as their turn arrives: one person to pass the cup, one to drink, and one to defend the temporarily defenseless drinker. The story goes that this tradition arose in the 10th century, when King Edward II (“the Martyr”) was stabbed to death by his stepmother while drinking a cup of mead.
A word that tends to go hand in hand with toasting, “cheers”, or in Medieval times “cheres”, derived from the Anglo-French word for ‘the face’. If we go a little further back, in Old French the word “chiere” meant “face, countenance, look, expression.” By the late 14th century “cheres” had evolved to “cheere” and came to mean a mood that was reflected in the face. By the 18th century, it had come to mean gladness and it began being used to show support and encouragement. Considering that wine, or alcohol in general, is something we drink in both celebration and lamentation, it’s hardly surprising that “cheers” eventually became a part of the toasting ritual.
In other languages ‘cheers’ means different things with varying connotations:
Here are some of the more interesting variations
Belarusian: “Будзьма!” (budzma, may we live!)
Chinese, Mandarin: “干杯” (gānbēi, lit. “Empty cup”, similar to “bottoms up” in English)
Icelandic: “Skál” (lit. bowl – refers to older drinking vessels)
Turkish: “Şerefe” (to honor)
Welsh: “iechyd Dda” (Good health)
Anyway, I hope this article has shown the weird and wonderful evolution of drinking traditions. The next time you’re out drinking with friends remember to clink your cohesive vessels together, maintain eye-contact, and drink to good health!