Here’s to the toast, kid
Let’s all drink to one another this holiday season
With the upcoming holiday season, there will surely be glasses raised above Thanksgiving tables and champagne flutes in the air for the New Year. Yet, even with traditional special occasions, not to mention among the barflies and hipsters of our lounges and speakeasies, the toast has been reduced to mere reflex. Reverently delivered poetry, clever pun-making and grand statements on the human condition have been replaced with a thoughtless “Cheers!”or a quick, “Raise a glass” and a “Hear, hear!”
Some suggest that the clinking of glasses during a toast was invented in order to include sound in the drinking experience, thus satisfying all five senses. Others—mainly Klingons—believe the sloshing of liquids between clinked glasses will spread any poison from unknown assassins. Whatever the origin, toasts have probably been around as long as alcohol and are human ritual at its best. Exemplifying and often speaking directly to the human condition, a toast makes a meal out of food. It’s what separates us from the animals.
Scandinavian warriors of old drank from the emptied skull of a fallen enemy (hence the toast “skal”—pronounced “scoal”), while ancient Greeks, those wonderful lushes, drank to the gods and anything else in their field of vision.
As Rome was collapsing, the English championed the idea of drinking to one’s health with a cry of the phrase “wæs hæl,” roughly “be well.” Over nearly 1,000 years of use, this phrase evolved into “wassail” around some heavy cider drinking and visiting of one’s neighbors, and eventually became associated with Christmas, morphing into the holiday caroling we do today.
When American colonists got hold of toasting, they took up where the Greeks left off, using any excuse—especially a jab at the crown—to raise a glass. At one time, toasts became associated with drunkenness and incivility so much that English toastmaster J. Roach felt the need to clean up its image with what some say is the original book on the subject, The Royal Toastmaster, published in 1791. In the book, he describes the role of the toast “as a stimulative to hilarity, and an incentive to innocent mirth, to loyal truth, to pure morality and to mutual affection.”
Roach’s lofty, though inspiring, description—along with published examples of great toasts—helped revive the toast’s popularity before Americans lost interest amid the Great Depression and Prohibition. Casablanca’s (1942) “Here’s looking at you, kid,” is arguably the art’s high-water mark before the toast fell out of favor in America, languishing for the past 80 years.
Being such a great tool for communal engagement, as well as such an integral part of the history of a drinking culture that is on the rise again, the time would seem ripe for thoughtful, artful public toasts to make a comeback. Roach believed a good toast could “revive languid conversation … cool the heat of resentment, and blunt the edge of animosity.” Doesn’t that, along with a stiff drink, sound like what the world needs right now?
So when the toast comes around this holiday season, let’s invite it to stay for another drink. Let us make amends for the sloppy best man and penetrate the shallow surface of barroom Instagram selfies, and speak poetically and with sincerity to thirsty brethren, united under raised glasses as citizens of the world.
Let’s drink to family and friends, gathered around a table. To fallen warriors. To landing a dream job. To getting over that cheating asshole—drink up! To feeling nothing and to feeling everything. To leaving town—and never coming back. Let’s drink to the lost weekend you’ll never remember with the friends you’ll never forget.
My friends are the best friends, loyal, willing and able. Now let’s get to drinking! All glasses off the table!
—traditional Irish toast.