When a host hands you a glass of bubbly, there's rarely concern that the liquid in hand will cost you your life. Yet, in ancient Greek and Roman times, it was a common worry. Back then, raising a glass wasn’t just to toast to the health of the guests, but was also a way for the host to prove that the drink wasn’t poisoned.
The tradition of toasting can be traced as far back as Mughal times in India. Even the Vikings in Scandinavia raised their glasses — well, supposedly the skulls of fallen foes — to honor fellow warriors, or women they liked. Even today, the tradition of toasting remains strongest in countries of German, Scandinavian, and Eastern European influence. As for the word "toast" itself? Some say that the gesture of raising a glass became a toast in 17th-century England during the reign of Charles II, when pieces of spiced toast were dipped in the liquid to impart flavor. Others maintain that the word originated through the custom of sharing a drink with friends by the fire and toasting bread.
To honor the worldly history of the toast, we’re taking a trip around the world and raising a glass as we go.
The French love their wine and rich cheeses, so it's no surprise that when raising a glass in France, they’re not toasting to happiness, but to health — "santé." ("A la votre," or "to yours," is another common toast.) Furthermore, those toasting must maintain eye contact with each other as they clink glasses, and toast every person in the group without crossing arms. Now that’s an exercise in restraint. And if you don’t? The superstition is that you’ll face seven years of bad sex.
The Germans love their beer, so is it any surprise that they have different toasts for both beer and wine — "prost" for beer, and "zum wohl" for wine, both of which translate to mean “to your good health.” As well, be sure to clink glasses with everyone around you, maintaining eye contact as you do so.
Modern Swedish toasting tradition can be traced back to the Vikings, when an empty skull of a fallen foe was passed around amongst comrades. Before raising the liquid to their lips, Swedes look each other in the eye as they go, as a way show their respect for others (and, back in the day, to ensure that they wouldn’t be attacked as they drank). The toaster then says "skal" and again makes eye contact before lowering the glass.
While most Spaniards will raise a glass and say, "salud," meaning "to good health," it’s a little different in parts of Catalonia. Apparently, Catalans aren’t bashful when it comes to talking about body parts. When men toast their buddies in Barcelona, you just might hear "salut i força al canut," or "health and strength to your ‘pipe’."
In China, tradition maintains that the host makes the first toast, saying, "gan bei," meaning "bottoms up," or "kai pay," (drain your glass). Guests then reciprocate with a toast back throughout the remainder of the meal.
When clinking glasses for the first time, it’s important to connect the bellies of the glass, the part under the rim. Then, for each subsequent toast, the bases of the glasses are tapped against the table.
Visiting China? Be wary if your hosts present you with a glass of clear liquor. The Chinese have been known to test the tolerance of a visitor by presenting them with a glass of er gua toe, a strong (120 proof) liquor made from sorghum, which can be likened to airline fuel.
Instead of a host being the first to toast, in Hungary, the guest of honor is the first person to raise their glass. It’s customary to make eye contact, raise the glass while saying, "egészségére!" meaning "for your health," take a sip, and then make eye contact again before setting the glass back down — no clinking. Low on wine? Don’t worry — glasses are often immediately filled, and only by men, not women. So if you don’t want any more, leave your glass half full. And never toast with beer.
Unlike in many places, toasts in Taiwan are often directed towards an individual rather than a group. If visiting, there is a chance everyone at the table will toast you to welcome you. When raising a glass, hold the glass in your right hand and place your left hand under it. Meaning "let the cup be dry," guests say “ho ta lah!” Then, they all drink and hold their cups up again before setting them back down.
During a meal, toasting begins with the host and continues throughout the meal. Some hosts will stand while raising their glass and saying, "Na zdrowia," (nah zdroh-vee-ah) or "to your health." If this happens, you should follow suit. Once your host raises their glass, usually filled with vodka, drinking can commence. And as alcohol is typically served in small glasses, perfect for gulping, don’t be caught with anything leftover — it’s like a shot.
Click here to learn about more toasts from around the world.
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