Humans throughout history have made a habit of basing a great deal of our traditions and customs around food. The curious practice of raising our drink containers is one of the most ancient of these.
To answer your question, for starters, we’ll dispel a myth. 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; thus, the people you’re drinking with wouldn’t poison you as they’d then be poisoning themselves. As interesting as this historical rumor is, not surprisingly, there is not a single shred of evidence backing up this conjecture.
As to the real origin, because the practice of honoring through a drink offering seems to have begun in pre-history, it’s hard to say who first got the idea. In fact, most ancient societies show evidence of doing this. The Ancient Greeks 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 Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire even describes a feast where Attila the Hun indulges in at least three toasts for every course.
The term “toast” 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. I can hear your disgusted outrage and objections to adding toast to wine, but it was actually quite a common practice 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 flavor. 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 honoring of people. In the early days of this connection, the person being honored often received the physical toast saturated with wine at the end.
Toasting became so popular in the 17th and 18th centuries that Toastmasters came into being. 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. This may sound silly, but it was a desperately needed role. 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.)
Evidence of this change in etiquette is still apparent today, and there are even still Toastmaster Clubs. Furthermore, while we still often include alcohol in our toasting, drinking directly after a toast is usually far more restrained, often just a sip, and more reminiscent of its roots – a practice used to honor someone in a respectful and revered manner, rather than a great excuse to get drunk.
§ 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, and 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.
This post was borrowed from a fellow writer.