A toast is someone or something in honor of which people usually have a drink, the drink or honor itself, or the act (pledge) of indicating that honor.
For example, a person could be "the toast of the evening", for whom someone "proposes a toast" to congratulate and for whom a third person "toasts" in agreement.
The toast as described here is rooted in Western culture, but certain cultures outside that sphere have their own traditions in which consuming a drink is connected with ideas of celebration and honor.
The description that follows explains the process of the toast in detail, including toasts that are of the more formal variety. However, merely raising one's glass towards someone or something and then drinking is essentially a toast as well, the message being one of goodwill towards the person or thing indicated.
The practice of toasting originated in Ancient Greece, at a time when fear of poisoning was a significant concern. To put guests at ease, the host would pour the guests' wine from a common decanter, take the first drink to demonstrate its safety, then raise his cup to the guests and invite them to drink in good health.
The custom of touching glasses also eased concerns about poisoning, since clinking glasses together would cause each drink to spill over into the others.
The word 'toast' became associated with the custom in the 17th century, based on a custom of flavoring drinks with spiced toast. The word originally referred to the lady in whose honor the drink was proposed, her name being seen as figuratively flavoring the drink.
Components of toasting
The act of toasting consists of three parts: The verbal toast, the agreement, and imbibing a drink.
- In the verbal part, one person states a reason for the toast. This can be as simple as "cheers!" or "here's to good friends" or as complex as a conveying an anecdote followed by a statement of goodwill such as "wishing both of you a marriage that lasts forever".
- At formal meals in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the Commonwealth, the first toast to be proposed is traditionally the Loyal Toast ("The Queen"). This may be adapted in other countries to give a loyal toast to the appropriate Head of State.
- People joining in the toast signify their agreement by lifting their drinks into the air, often accompanied by shouted or murmured sounds of agreement, either repeating the toast word (e.g., "cheers!") or confirming the sentiment with terms such as "Hear! Hear!", and often followed by touching one's drinkware against those of everyone else within reach.
- The principal part of this agreement, that of raising glasses, actually precedes the verbal element in many cases. This is the case when someone announces "raise your glass for a toast" and people do so. The person contributing the verbal element may then wait until everyone is in position before making a statement.
- One instance which specifically precludes a verbal agreement element is in the case of the "Immortal Memory" toast, traditionally drunk on Trafalgar Day at the Royal Navy dinner aboard the HMS Victory to the memory of Admiral Lord Nelson. This toast is made standing in total silence. The words of the toast itself, "The Immortal Memory", are said following a "Nelsonian" anecdote.
- Other "silent toasts" may be solemnly made without verbal agreement or touching glasses. This is appropriate for honoring a recently departed friend or a fallen hero.
- In many cultures, etiquette suggests that when two people touch glasses while toasting they make eye contact at the same time. Not looking into another's eye during a toast may signify a lack of trust and is said to bring seven years of bad luck.
- Imbibing a drink "seals" the toast. This can be a quick sip or a long draft, with no particular emphasis indicated either way in most cultures. However, in some cases (such as toasting with small glasses of vodka in Russia or certain Scandinavian countries) there is an expectation that one drain the glass. In Japan, Korea, and China, traditional liquors like gaoliang and soju are consumed from small glasses, and it is common to toast with "Kanpai" (Japan) or "Ganbei" (China and Taiwan) which literally means "dry glass." Thus downing the entire drink is appropriate after these toasts.
- Placing one's glass down without drinking or holding one's glass without drinking while becoming distracted by some other activity is impolite. If a person does this willfully, it demonstrates that they do not agree with the toast for some reason (e.g., it was inappropriately ribald or advocated a political cause with which the person strongly disagrees). This negates the agreement previously indicted by the having one's glass raised.
- Many consider it bad luck to toast with an empty glass.
- Toasting traditionally involves alcoholic beverages. Champagne (or at least some variety of sparkling wine) is regarded as especially festive and is widely associated with New Year's Eve and situations of a sudden, congratulatory nature (such as learning that one has gained a lucrative business contract).
- There is no requirement that beverages contain alcohol, but it isn't uncommon for a person who is not drinking alcohol on a given occasion (but who is not a teetotaler) to take just a sip of an alcoholic beverage in honor of the toast in preference to a soft drink.
- Often, different participants have different drinks, such as when some people drink sparkling cider instead of sparkling wine.
- It is a tradition in the United States Navy that a toast is never to be made with water, this being said to indicate that the person so honored will be doomed to a watery grave. In general, toasting with water is regarded as bad luck by some and as insufficiently festive by others.
- During a United States Air Force Dining In, all toasts are traditionally made with wine except for the final toast of the night made in honor of POWs/MIAs; because these honorees did not have the luxury of wine while in captivity, the toast is made with water.
Examples of traditional places for toasts include the following:
- At a wedding reception, the best man usually proposes a toast in the form of best wishes and congratulations to the newlyweds.
- In Christmas celebrations in the United Kingdom and closely connected cultures, drinking wassail involves giving a toast to the season and often floating a piece of toasted bread in one's cup (the term "toast" may come from this practice). The wassail toast is almost unknown in the United States.
In many cultures, toasting is common and to not do so may be a breach of etiquette. The most common toasts either have "good luck" or "good health" as the one-word theme. Examples include:
Canada & Britain
- Most people will lightly touch glasses when giving a toast "cheers" or a short phrase to someone or something. In some groups toasting without touching glasses is increasingly popular and is regarded by some as a slightly more sophisticated mode of behavior. In other groups toasting without touching glasses is considered rude, as if you are not one of the group and have no desire to be. The notable exception to this is at large parties where touching everyone's glass is almost impossible.
- Except during formal occasions such as a wedding or an anniversary party for which a function hall has been rented, it is not very common to "propose a toast" in the more formal sense. However, when someone does make such a gesture, it is almost invariably met with approval regardless of the setting or the occasion.
Among the peoples of Caucasus
in particular, toasts are a matter of elaborate traditions and rituals, with toasting speeches being an important type of the folk tradition. Usually a toast speech starts with a kind of parable
and concludes with a punchline
constituting the actual toast. The most artful toast is one in which the topic of the parable is apparently unrelated to the occasion of the moment but whose conclusion most unexpectedly fits the occasion. This is a short but typical example:
"A bird spotted a glittering necklace in the King's treasury and stole it away. Happy, it flew very high, higher than the highest mountains. Suddenly a gust of wind tore the necklace's string, and the precious gems scattered all over the world... It is a great luck that one of them landed by our table today. Cheers to Maria!"