Our resident Millennial digs into the history of the alcoholic salutation
As I write this, I am in my early twenties, a fact which carries a couple connotations—the truest of which being every person I’ve ever known is now getting married. That means I’ve had a front seat to several traditions. And I’ve noticed something: us primates have a tendency to build a lot of our rituals around food. We’ve taken something necessary for our survival and turned it into a communal act, and nowhere is that more evident than in the art of the toast.
Exactly when the tradition began is unknown, but we know one thing for certain: it did not originate as a method to avoid poisoning. The speculation was clinking glasses together would cause the liquid from both to spill into the other. If either party had poisoned the other, they wouldn’t drink out of the glass for fear of poisoning themselves.
It’s an interesting speculation, but so far, no historical evidence has been presented to support it. As for the actual reason why we raise and clink our glasses together, we can likely apply Occam’s razor. The simplest and most popular theory is we raise our glasses to offer the drink to the one or ones being honored, and clinking them together offers your drink to those around you.
No one civilization lays claim to the invention of toasting; in fact, there’s evidence that similar rituals existed in every civilization. Ulysses drinks to the health of Achilles in The Odyssey, Ancient Greeks drank to each others’ health, and the ancient Roman senate passed a decree stating that all citizens were required to drink to Emperor Augustus at every meal.
While the glass-raising ritual has existed for eras, it wasn’t given a name until the 16th century, likely coined by Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Falstaff requests “a quart of sack” with “a toast in’t,” or in modern English, a lot of wine with a literal piece of toast in it. Tossing a slice of stale bread in a jug of wine was common practice, done to soak up the wine’s acidity and improve the flavor.
Eventually, the act evolved to include drinking to others’ honor and health. In the 17th and 18th centuries, elaborate drinking games emerged, often with the end goal of impressing women. This is also where we get “toast of the town—” the more beautiful a woman was, the more men toasted to her.
Games included drinking from the woman’s shoe and the gentleman cutting himself, mixing his blood with the drink, and toasting to the woman in proof of her devotion. There really is nothing new under the sun, is there?
Which brings us back to the tradition of the wedding toast. Traditionally, the father of the bride thanks the guests for attending; the best man gives a groom-embarrassing speech; and the maid of honor follows suit. And at the end of each toast, we raise our glasses to a time-honored celebration of community.
Hillary Eames graduated from Covenant College with a BA in English December 2015. She’s lived in Chattanooga for thirteen years and has strong opinions on F. Scott Fitzgerald and superhero movies.