Cheers to toasting! While the exact origins of the celebratory gesture of raising a toast are lost in the mists of time, there is enough evidence to indicate that ancient cultures performed some version of making a toast. The exact mechanisms vary from culture to culture and time to time through history, just as much as the words used to accompany the toast can vary from language to language.
Making contact with a shared alcoholic drink, and wishing your fellow drinkers “good health,” “long life” or celebrating a particular event, such as a marriage, is, it seems, inherent in human nature. And why not?
One proposed origin is that the idea of clinking glasses together would inevitably cause some of the contents of your glass to spill into the other person’s, and some of theirs into yours. This might mean that were one glass poisoned, then both would become so.
However, apart from the obvious possibility that this process would not actually work — particularly if one party was deliberately trying for it not to — and instead might simply cause wasted drink or stained floors, clothes or beards, there is absolutely no historical evidence to support the idea. The fact that people over that ages have invented, and promulgated, a made-up story is in itself ample evidence that we simply do not know.
A shared drink — which would avoid poisoning — is a hallmark of cultures as the ancient indigenous populations of many parts of the world. In Fiji, for example, the locally produced cava — a powdery tea-like drink with allegedly hallucinogenic properties — is passed around the group. It is to be hoped that it works, because the substance really does not taste very nice!
In ancient Greece, perhaps the first place in Western culture where the record-keeping can be believed as historically accurate, there is evidence of drinking to someone’s health. In Homer’s “The Odyssey” for example, Achilles’ health is toasted by Ulysses.
The Romans similarly placed a great emphasis on drinking to one another’s health, indeed to the degree that the Senate once passed a decree that demanded everyone drink to Emperor Augustus — at every meal.
And it wasn’t just the Romans. Attila the Hun is described in Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” as making at least three toasts with every course of a presumably exceptionally long drawn out banquet.
The term “toast” itself is literal. In medieval times, it was simply not acceptable not to use up all food, and this meant finding ingenious uses for, among other things, stale bread. Also the origin of re-cooking bread in the likes of French toast and bread and butter pudding, adding toasted bread to wine was considered to improve it, as it would absorb excess acidity and bitterness in the way that ageing wine in oak does these days.
In Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” Falstaff demands, “Go fetch me a quart of sack; put a toast in’t.”
Adding spice to the toast would further improve the flavor of the wine. The practice of toasting continued in culture and it was traditional for the person being honored to receive the wine-soaked toast at the end.
Toasting clubs grew up and often became simply excuses for mammoth drinking sessions and lewd behavior. Toastmasters became popular — and possibly essential — around the 18th century. It was probably around this time that the use of actual toast was lost.
As well as proposing toasts — their continued role — they acted as referees, to stop people from becoming over-zealous and continually toasting everyone in the room, thus risking consuming far too much alcohol, with the potential for disaster that entails!
Westerners discovering Chinese ganbei — literally empty the glass — for the first time, might consider it something of a shame that this role seems not to have developed in China!
Toastmasters are now as much meeting organizers and directors. They need to be good at public speaking, and part of their job remains the refereeing side of things, but the meetings may not involve alcohol or toasts at all these days.
Plenty of drinking games and ceremonies were established around toasting and many of them were proposed and made to honor particular ladies. Indeed, for a man to declare his love, he would often cut himself and allow some of his blood into the drink, then raise it to the lady concerned and drink her health. In Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” the King of Morocco says: “I stabbed my arm to drink her health.”
Of course, as with all aspects of alcoholic consumptions, the drunkenness of many toasting sessions created a backlash and many anti-toasting movements came into being, possibly the embryo of the prohibition movement that eventually caused the outright banning of alcohol in the United States and parts of Scandinavia.
The anti-toasting movements were not initially successful in getting the events banned, but they did lead to a more restrained and civilized approach and ultimately to the toasts we make today.
In France, as in many other European countries, the customary greeting when making a toast is “sante” or ‘health,’ but also used is “tchin tchin,” which is actually based on Chinese qing qing — please please — a legacy of when French soldiers returned from the Opium War (1839-1860). In Italy, “cin cin” is used, and “chin chin” in Spain, and occasionally Britain, although you have to wonder whether its users are aware of its history.
“Cheers” itself is originally from the Latin for face or countenance, and for many people has come to mean that it is bad luck to say this to someone without looking them in the eye at the same time.
Most other cultures have words conveying one or other of these sentiments, although the phrase “bottoms up” in English is obviously reminiscent of the empty glass sentiments of ganbei — though without quite the obligation to drain the glass every time!