A Brief History of Raised Glasses

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The first recorded instance of a toast being offered in England occurred in a.d. 450 at a great feast given by the British King Vortigern to his Saxon allies. Rowena, the beautiful daughter of the Saxon leader Hengist, held up a large goblet filled with a spiced drink and drank to the king, saying, "Louerd King, waes hael!"-"Lord King, be of health!"-to which he replied, "Drink, hael."

According to the account of medieval historian Geoffrey of Monmouth, the festivity did not stop there. Vortigern kissed Rowena and then made passionate love to her. Intoxicated, he then bargained with Hengist for her hand. A deal was struck by which Hengist got the province of Kent in exchange for Rowena. Vortigern and Rowena were married that evening.

For at least a thousand years drinking in Britain was commonly accompanied by the same verbal exchange, although waes hael became wassail. One of the earliest known Christmas carols, dating from the days of the Norman minstrels, ends with these lines:

Each must drain his cup of wine,
And I the first will toss off mine:
Thus I advise,
Here then I bid you all Wassail,
Cursed be he who will not say Drink hail.

Over the years the term wassail became associated with Christmas and the New Year, the times of the greatest festivity, and by the seventeenth century the meaning had narrowed to the specific one of drinking from a large bowl or loving cup on Christmas Day and Twelfth Night. While people of means prepared their own wassail, groups of poor people commonly went from door to door with an empty bowl which they expected to be filled at every stop. Some prefaced their request with a medley of Christmas carols while others chanted something more threatening:

Come, butler, come fill us a bowl of the best;
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest;
But if you draw us a bowl of the small,
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all.

A variation of this custom was for a group to go door to door with a beverage of their own making for which they would expect to be dearly paid. There were songs for this as well:

Good dame, here at your door
Our wassail we begin,
We are all maidens poor,
We now pray let us in,
With our wassail.

Some of the old wassailing songs were little more than toasts set to music:

Here's to _____ and his right ear,
God send our maister a Happy New Year;
A Happy New Year as e'er he did see-
With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee.

Here's to _____ and her right eye,
God send our mistress a good Christmas pie:
A good Christmas pie as e'er I did see-
With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee.

The present custom of caroling from door to door derives from all of this.

Although people had been drinking to one another for centuries, the actual term "toast" did not come along until the late seventeenth century, when it was the custom to place a piece of toast or crouton in a drink. This is alluded to in many drinking songs and ditties of the period including this one published in 1684:

A toast is like a sot; or what is most
Compatitive, a sot is like a toast;
For when their substance is liquor sink,
Both properly are said to be in drink.

The exact reason for doing this has been blurred by time, but various hints point to the conclusion that it was either believed to improve the flavor of the drink in the manner of a spice, or that it was a built-in snack, a bit of token nourishment. Whatever the reason, the practice was common, and virtually anything found floating in a drink was referred to as "toast."

The name change occurred during the days of Charles II (1660-1685) in the resort city of Bath where many went for the ardent spirits and warm mineral baths. The exact moment of the name change was recorded in 1709 in The Tatler by Isaac Bick-erstaffe:

It happened that on a publick day a celebrated beauty of those times was in the Cross Bath, and one of the crowd of her admirers took a glass of the water in which the fair one stood and drank her health to the company. There was in the place a gay fellow, half fuddled, who offered to jump in, and swore though he liked not the liquor, he would have the toast. He was opposed in his resolution; yet this whim gave foundation to the present honour which is done to the lady we mention in our liquor, who has ever since been called a toast.*

Toasting became immensely popular during the seventeenth century. This was especially true in the British Isles. "To drink at table," wrote one Englishman, "without drinking to the health of some one special, would be considered drinking on the sly, and as an act of incivility."

Popularity bred excess. The English discovered the Scandinavian custom of drinking not just to everyone present but to all of one's absent friends as well. Suddenly, one did not have to limit oneself to the mere twenty drinks normally pledged at a party of twenty.

Each nation had its own customs-almost always excessive. In Scotland, for instance, it was the custom to drink sparingly during the meal, allow the women to withdraw to the drawing room, and then bring in a large punch bowl filled with whisky, hot water, and sugar. Goblets or mugs were used, and each round required a toast, a quick drink, and a turned-over vessel to prove that all had been drunk. One scholar of the period wrote, "During the seventeenth and the earlier portion of the eighteenth century, after-dinner drinking was protracted for eight to ten hours."

On important occasions, the toaster mounted his chair, placed his right foot on the table and bellowed out a favorite sentiment-"May ne'er waur be amang us," "May the pleasures of the evening bear the reflection of the morning," or whatever. All of this was accompanied by lusty cheering.

The toasting and hoisting that accompanied Scotch weddings were enough to put a cramp in the arm. According to an account from 1692, the process began when the parents of the bride and groom met to make the wedding arrangements. The two families would meet at a point equidistant between their two homes and if all went well, they would bring an agreement bottle of whisky with which the coming wedding would be toasted. Closer to the actual event was the predecessor of today's bachelor party. The male friends of the bride and the male friends of the groom would meet halfway between the bride's and the groom's houses. Each group would appoint a "champion" and the two men would race, either on horseback or foot, to the bride's house where the winner would receive a beribboned bottle. The bottle would be brought back to be passed among the assembled men as they drank to the bride's health. Then came the wedding and more toasting and drinking.

* The Tatler, Vol. 1, No. 24.