Mistrust and mysticism to libations and veneration: Why do we say cheers and clink glasses?
“Imagine, if you will, the clamour of merriment and song radiating from a stone-walled banquet hall. Within, thick tapestries and roaring fires do their best to fend off the encroaching frost. The clamour fades as two kings, burly and bearded, stand and eye each other suspiciously. They pick up their goblets and approach… will they be friends, or enemies? This moment will decide.
“A toast, to our latest and bravest ally!” shouts the hosting monarch, raising his drink. The two slam their cups together forcefully, honeyed wine sloshing over the sides and landing in one another’s vessels. As they both down their drinks the tension amongst their parties is relieved: neither has attempted to poison the other and trust wins the day”
Around this time of year I get to thinking about traditions and rituals from the past that have survived to this day. Christmas always provokes this type of contemplation, what with Christian beliefs and modern day consumerism all tied up with a bow and placed under a pagan tree. Another thing I tend do a lot of at this time of year at various parties and functions is raise a glass and say cheers. Cheers to good luck and good health, to the fortunes of the people I care about and the honour of those I admire. It’s a worthwhile ritual, and one used the world over. So where does it come from?
It turns out we might have to put on our Indiana Jones hat for this one, because the answer may be lost to the mists of time. Initially I thought a brief sojourn to Victorian England might hold the answer: I pictured well-to-do ladies and gentlemen clinking glasses in a dignified manner. Indeed, one part of the mystery may be found there as by the 18th Century, the age old custom of putting a spiced or burnt piece of toasted bread in a drink for taste ( as charcoal would lessen the acidity) had fallen out of favour, but the terminology of “toasting” continued as shorthand for “raising a glass to someone’s health”. Even so, the act of toasting itself seems to be much older.
The brief vignette that started today’s blog seems to make immediate sense. Throughout history poison has been a convenient method, amongst the ruling classes, of getting rid of troublesome competitors. Yet there is scant historical evidence to support this ‘mixing of drinks’ being the true origin. Even so, the Saxon era seems to hold some weight in explaining the custom: some historians recount the story of a feast held by Saxon King Hengist in honour of his ally King Vortigern, a warlord king of Britain. It is said his daughter Rowena approached Votigern with a golden goblet and said, ‘Was heal, hlaford Conung.” Impressed by the comely lass he quickly motioned to his interpreter, who informed him that she meant “Health to thee, my lord King.” Marriage soon followed and the sharing of the wassail cup became a longstanding tradition in itself.There might be something of a conflation of traditions, then, that have led to the toast as we now know it. But we have yet to understand the actual raising of the drink and the clinking of glasses; for that we can look to the ancient Greeks and Romans. These groups of course both feared the Gods and loved their wine in equal measure, and both practiced the pouring of libations on to the ground to appease Gods and the dead. Similar customs can be found the world over, and even in the modern day Tupac sang “Pour out a little liquor for your (dead) homies.” It can be surmised that raising a glass works in a similar way, albeit a little less wasteful.
Belief in Gods and spirits might help us understand the clinking of glasses. In Chinese feng shui noises are thought to ward off evil spirits – wind chimes and bells are used to clear an area of their malevolence before ceremonies. Amongst their many uses, the bells of English churches were once thought to have similar powers, and because of this many still claim that glasses are clinked during a toast for this reason. This seems to have its own logic considering that becoming intoxicated is thought by some spiritualist traditions to make us easy prey for demons looking possess us.
Alas, there is nothing conclusive to which to pin the origins of the toast, and that is probably something to do with the originators being three sheets to the wind when they came up with their various customs. It is fitting, though, that this ritual is shared by civilizations and cultures across the planet and across time, because that is what the toast is all about. Getting together and sharing a sense of tradition, camaraderie and respect for each other, all senses and attention primed on the act and the sentiment it honours.
So I raise a glass to you, your health, your families and those who are no longer with us, as a former military man my first toasts of the Christmas and New Year festivities are always to Her Majesty The Queen & Absent Friends. Cheers...