To health, prosperity and settled hearts! Raising a glass to the hearty toast

 

Fans of A Christmas Carol will recall that the story ends with a slap-up dinner at the Cratchit household, a half-circle around the hearth and the salutation: "God bless us every one!" from the crippled-but-plucky Tiny Tim. Modern-day parishioners of the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, know that his usual Christmas card salutation is "Health, prosperity and settled hearts." In Scotland, every household on New Year's Eve promises to "take a cup of kindness yet" in memory of long ago.

They're all toasts, a word redolent of comfort and warmth, which takes on more agreeable associations when it means clinking glasses (to frighten away the devil with the sound of bells) and drinking to the happiness of another. This Yuletide, it'll mostly mean a cry of "Cheers!", but it used to be a much more elaborate ritual. The tradition dates back to antiquity (Odysseus drinks to the health of Achilles in Homer's Odyssey), but it wasn't called "toasting" until the 17th century, when "wassailing" meant drinking people's health from a bowl containing ale, boiled with roasted apples, sugar, nutmeg and, amazingly, toast. No really: once, you toasted people with actual toast.

The figurative use of the word was defined in the Tatler of 1709 by Isaac Bickerstaff: "...the present honour which is done to the lady we mention in our liquor, who has ever since been called a toast." The toast became an excuse for after-dinner drinking. With no shortage of toast-worthy people (after you'd exhausted the company in the room, you could move on to "absent friends") and no need for actual conversation beyond calling names and drinking with loud huzzahs, it was a party game in which everyone could join. The 18th and early 19th centuries saw the rise of 15-course, heroically intoxicated, toast-tastic dinners. Women, although generally excluded, were the cause of the trouble. According to Paul Dickson's magisterial study, Toasts (1981), inebriated chaps would show the strength of their love by stabbing themselves in the arm and mingling their blood with the wine they drank to a lady. Competitions would break out, in which two gentlemen would each drink to their beloved's health, until one fell down.

Not everyone believed that "proposing a health" was an innocent celebration. Louis XIV forbade the drinking of toasts at his court. Temperance societies sprang up in America, aimed at banning the toast. In Ireland, the Bishop of Cork distributed pamphlets condemning the practice of drinking "a health" to the dead (he had a point). Nothing, though, could halt the march of toasting. The fad crossed the Atlantic. In the period up to the Civil War, toasts to the Union or the Confederate secession were commonplace at dinner. After the war, 13 toasts – one for each state in the Union – were drunk on the Fourth of July. Toasting became the pretext for, not drunken sentimentality about the laydeez, but political rhetoric: Benjamin Franklin was exceptionally eloquent with toasts that subtly subverted foreign dignitaries. By the 1920s, toasts were being written for every event from christening to funeral, magazines held toasting contests, books were published containing suitable inducements to quaff. But Prohibition put a sudden end to it in America, while in England it petered out during the war. In 1963, the poet John Pudney complained about "the decline of the eloquence and variety of the toast in the English language. The last two generations at least seem to find themselves embarrassed by the formality of toasting."

There have been signs, though, that it's back. Drinks manufacturers are keen to recall the tradition: the makers of Glenmorangie single malt are offering a "first-footing" package that includes a bottle of whisky, a lump of coal and the toast "Lang may yer lum reek" (ie long may your chimney smoke, an index of prosperity).

President Obama is an enthusiastic glass-raiser at state dinners, taking his cue from Ronald Reagan, an inveterate toaster (though we should forget the dinner in 1982, hosted by the President of Brazil, where Reagan proposed a toast to "the people of Bolivia").

And every year, half a million drinkers, alerted by Facebook and Twitter, try to break the world record for "the largest toast in history." So why not try a toast yourself this Christmas? My favourite of all time? It's Elaine's from Seinfeld: "Here's to those who wish us well and those who don't can go to hell."

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Casual Visitor Experience Assistants

    £7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: To work within the Visitor Experience Departm...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

    Recruitment Genius: Transportation Contracting Manager

    £33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global player and world leade...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

    Day In a Page

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

    Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
    Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

    Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

    No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
    How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

    Power of the geek Gods

    Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

    Perfect match

    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

    Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

    Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
    Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

    Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

    He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high