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Eat, Drink and be Merry!

“May ye be in Heaven half an hour afore the Devil knows ye’re dead.” –An old Irish toast

Toasting - the call to raise a glass in honor or goodwill - brings to mind times spent in celebration, especially around the holidays. Whether the occasion is a family wedding, graduation, a wake, a new baby – or just another Friday night, it helps us celebrate today’s joys and accomplishments.

A little research, however, reveals there’s far more to this festive tradition than most of us realize.

Historians, for example, say that clinking glasses with a toast originated with the Greeks for a very practical reason. As early as the 6th century poisoning had become a popular way to deal with social problems and enemies. The Greeks believed by sloshing glasses, you could spill some of the poison someone put into your wine back into theirs. 

Eventually toasting became a symbol of peace and friendship, with the host pouring drink from a single pitcher. He would partake first, before his guests, to make sure the wine was safe, and then raise a glass to his friends. That explains the custom that all parties to a toast wait until everyone has a filled glass and the host clinks or raises his or her glass.

In his book, “Toasts,” researcher Paul Dickson says that tribal feasts were usually accompanied by required toasts – usually to laud victorious military leaders. The Roman Senate ruled that all diners must drink to Augustus at every meal. The term “toast” originated with the Romans who would put a piece of burnt bread into a goblet to mellow the flavor of often less-than-tasty wine. 

When the Danes invaded today’s England during the 10th century, a wine-drinker might pledge his intention to guard a friend from harm while tossing back a drink. Dickson says these ale-enhanced pledges “stemmed from the objectionable Danish habit of cutting the throats of Englishmen while they were drinking.” The modern toast, “Skoal” or “Skal” in Norway and Denmark, has an equally colorful history. It derived from an early custom in northern Europe of drinking mead or ale from the skull of a fallen enemy. Fortunately the custom only lasted through the 11th century!

More positive salutes today cross wide-ranging geographic and cultural boundaries, signaling honor and goodwill. 

In England and America, “Cheers,” “Skoal” or “Bottoms up” are favorite salutes. In Tokyo, revelers say, “Kampai;” in Holland the term is “Proost,” and in France choices include “Tchin Tchin” (the sound of clinking glasses) or “Santé” (health). A Web search generates dozens of options including the Chinese Mandarin “ganbei” (“empty cup”), the Slavic/Russian “Na zdravie” or “Vashe zdorov’ye”(to health) or Hebrew “L’Chayyim” (to life). And a merry Irishman will wish you, “Sláinte!” (to health).

I’ve shared many toasts during my career,” observes Gregor Huesgen, owner of Downtown Spirits and Fine Wine and a widely traveled investment banker who has lived in Thailand, Luxembourg, Belgium, Japan as well as in his native Germany.

Drinking cultures vary. “In England and Ireland there is the pub culture where they toast mostly with Guinness ale and beer. In Asia, it’s with cognacs and sake because theirs is not a ‘grape culture.’ But I think the root of toasting comes from northern latitude countries where people sit around the fire, raising a glass on cold winter nights,” he says. 

Etiquette International.com provides a number of guidelines and taboos for the host who toasts:

Like the Boy Scouts’ motto, “Be prepared.” It takes more effort to be short and sweet than long-winded. And practice, practice, practice if you want to sound spontaneous!

Exercise eloquence and wit – but never insult. Make it appropriate.

Keep it brief and simple. Sincerity is often conveyed through simple words. “This is not an audition for Hamlet,” the experts advise.

End on a positive note. The best toasts are upbeat and include raising a glass or clinking.

There are also a few toasting taboos, including:  

Never drink if a toast is offered in your honor – it’s like applauding yourself.

Never toast a guest of honor before the host is saluted.

Always stand up and respond to the toast, even if it is only to thank your host for his or her generosity.

Be sure to make eye contact with the guest receiving a toast – and never rap on a glass to get attention!  

At official diplomatic functions – though infrequent in the Pikes Peak region - a toast is not drunk to the guest of honor unless that person is a Chief of State or head of government.