In this season of holiday celebrations, there's one sure way to either distinguish or disgrace yourself It's a social skill that can bind hearts and deals, make lovers swoon and parents cry, or sweep a social gathering to a crescendo - and all the guests to their feet. Then again, it can also leave you stuttering and sweating, as people glance at one another in embarrassment. Perhaps you might be interested then in a few tips on how to propose a good toast?
Today, toasts are as rare as place cards. If proposed at all, they often involve no more forethought than "Down the hatch!" or "Here's to Jack and Jill!" But it wasn't always that way; toasts have been given with great eloquence since classical times. Back then, they usually involved kissing up to the gods: The custom was to toast them first. In Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey, Odysseus drinks to the health of Achilles. The ritual involved looking up to the sky, then spilling some wine as an offering.
The term "toast" originates in ancient Rome, when the Senate ordered that the emperor Augustus be honored with a toast at every meal. The senators dropped a piece of burnt bread into their acidic vin ordinaire - the charcoal masked the wine's nasty flavors. (This was the Latin equivalent of over-oaking flawed wines.) This piece of bread was called "tostus," meaning roasted or parched - and the name eventually came to mean the custom itself.
But back in those less-civilized days, camaraderie and treachery were often guests at the same dinner table. Poisoning was the preferred way to pay off outstanding debts and unpleasant people. When Greek hosts in the sixth century B.C. toasted each guest, they would drink first from a common bowl to show that the wine wasn't poisoned. If the host showed no signs of oxygen constriction, the guests then drank too.
Other drinking rituals were also aimed at detoxifying the custom. The point of intertwining hands, for instance, was for guests to drink from each other's glasses. Likewise, the point of clinking glasses was to spill a little of your wine into the other person's glass. The sound of the glasses clinking was also thought to ward off evil, since demonic creatures were repelled by bell-like noises.
Today, even though poisoning is no longer fashionable, touching glasses still reminds guests that although the wine is now separated, it originally came from one source - and so, is a symbol of unity. Some toasters still like to smash their glasses after the toast - the old fireplace toss. This gesture of reckless generosity is seen as a way of binding the toast. (But think twice before doing this with your Riedel stemware.)
However, not all toasts have their roots in social grace. The Swedish toast "Skal!" came from the 11th century practice of drinking mead or ale from the skulls of defeated enemies. (The tamer modern version is drinking from a woman's shoe.) And just throwing your head back to quaff a toast meant sticking your neck out: The Danes, for example, cut the throats of Brits while they drank. (That's why Shakespeare, in Timon of Athens, recommended that "Great men should drink with a harness on their throats.")
How many ancient Anglo-Saxons were needed to complete a toast? (This isn't a light-bulb joke.) Traditionally, three: one to pass the cup, one to drink from it and one to defend the drinker. In fact, proper toasting required holding the cup with a straight arm, to show that the toaster wasn't hiding a sword under a cloak. Toasts could be used to challenge the fortitude of adversaries: Often glasses had to be turned upside down after the toast, to prove that they were indeed empty. This wasn't a problem for the first round, or even the second - it was the 23rd that caused the trouble.
And though we're used to wishing friends good luck in our toasts, many toasts were dedicated to enemies back then - wishing them tight shoes and big blisters, pigs that didn't grunt, spades that broke and horrid medical conditions that would baffle even the brightest physicians.
But gradually, toasting became a way of welcoming strangers and of learning their names - though in fiercely hierarchical societies, inferiors weren't allowed to actually use the names of their betters when toasting them: They had to be content with "To Monsieur's good health." (Even though everyone might share the same magisterial hangover the next morning, you were still only the second cousin of the duchess.)
The British began the custom of toasting not only friends present, but also those absent, especially women, who, of course, were banned from bawdy barrooms. These eulogies usually involved standing on a chair, with one foot on the table, and yelling some version of, "May the pleasures of the evening bear the reflection of the morning." If the woman's popularity was widespread, she became known as the "toast of the town." (Or in Madame Pompadour's case "the toast of France. Such was the popularity of toasting in England, that not doing it was considered uncivil - tantamount to drinking on the sly. Many groups opened meetings with toasts even when the gathering didn't involve a meal. In Scotland toasting was even used to make covert political statements. When called upon to toast the king, Scottish Jacobites would honor their exiled monarch Bonnie Prince Charlie - who had fled across the English Channel to France in 1746 – by passing their glass over water. Thus, while outwardly toasting the usurper King George II, they were secretly drinking to their king "across the water."
Over time, toasting came to be seen as vulgar, an activity associated with the lower classes looking for an excuse to drink. Dignified people began to do it privately, and less often. Several European monarchs tried to ban the practice, including Charles the Great, Maximilian, Charles V - and even Louis XIV, who was known for his extravagance. Eliminating toasting was also one of the first objectives of the British Temperance movement in the 1500s.
The early 20th century produced especially witty toast-making, embodied by Dorothy Parker and her contemporaries of the Algonquin Round Table in New York: "I like to take a drink. One, two - three at the most. With four, I'm under the table. With five, I'm under the host."
But U.S. Prohibition in the 1920s and early '30s ushered in a Dark Age. Drinking was banned, and the art of composing and delivering toasts suffered accordingly. But just as European monks in monasteries kept winemaking alive in the Middle Ages, in America toasting also continued in dimly lit places - saloons converted into speakeasies. Popular toasts at the time included: "Here's to Prohibition - the devil take it! They've stolen our wine, so now we make it." Of course, the repeal of Prohibition was toasted even more enthusiastically: "Temperance, I'll drink to that!"
Formal state dinners have long been opportunities for toasts carrying political messages and one-up-manship. When Benjamin Franklin was the American emissary to France, the British ambassador led off with a toast to his king: "George the Third - who, like the sun in its meridian, spreads lustre throughout and enlightens the world." Not to be outdone, the French minister said, "To the illustrious Louis the Sixteenth - who, like the moon, sheds his mild and benevolent rays on and influences the globe." Finally, Franklin rose and responded: "To George Washington, commander of the American armies - who, like Joshua of old, commanded the sun and moon to stand still, and both obeyed."
Some toasts are pure embarrassment. U.S. President Gerald Ford toasted Anwar Sadat in 1975: "To the great people and the government of Israel - Egypt, excuse me." Ronald Reagan addressed the president of Brazil and the "people of Bolivia." During dinner at the Russian embassy, after Churchill and Roosevelt had both proposed toasts, Joseph Stalin made a quick remark in Russian. The English speakers were raising their glasses to drink to what they thought was a toast, when an interpreter stood up and translated, "Marshal Stalin says the men's room is on the right." Years later, former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev did his diplomatic best to speak English by blurting out: "Up your bottoms!"
Today, we save our toasts mostly for formal dinners and weddings. The latter is just about the only ceremony that still has a traditional order for toasts - starting with the bride, and going on to other family members in turn. But of course we don't need a special occasion to propose a toast. Some of the deepest-felt and best remembered are those offered from the heart to good friends. My own favorite: "May friendship, like wine, improve as time advances. And may we always have old wine, old friends and young cares."
Live every day as if it is your last, and every night as if it is your first.
Here's to the bride that is to be,
Here's to the groom she'll wed,
May all their troubles be light as bubbles
Or the feathers that make up their bed!
May your joys be as deep as the ocean and your cares as light as its foam.
May all your troubles be little ones.OTHER TOASTS
With fifty years between you,
And your well-kept wedding vow,
The Golden Age, old friends of mine, Is not a fable now.
- John Greenleaf Whittier
Another candle on your cake?
Well, that's no cause to pout,
Be glad that you have strength enough
To blow the damn thing out!
Here's champagne to our real friends and real pain to our sham friends!
Here's to health in homely rhyme - Oliver Wendell Holmes A toast to the graduate - in a class by herself! I drink to your health when I'm with you - Michael Levinrod Here's looking at you, kid. - Humphrey Bogart toasting Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca
To our oldest classmate, Father Time!
May our last survivor live to be
As bold and wise and as thorough as he!
I drink to your health when I am alone
I drink to your health so often
I'm beginning to worry about my own
Here's to health in homely rhyme
- Oliver Wendell Holmes
A toast to the graduate - in a class by herself!
I drink to your health when I'm with you
- Michael Levinrod
Here's looking at you, kid.
- Humphrey Bogart toasting Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca