Wassail Wonders: Exploring the Cultural Tapestry of Toasts and Merriment

Whether it’s prost, salut, 乾杯, cheers, sláinte, chinchín, Iechyd da, or na zdorovie the act of joyously raising a glass to make a toast is the same around the world – and has even said to have helped broker peace between warring tribes.

“Go, fetch me a quart of sack; put a toast in ‘t,”

From The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare

A Saxon stoneware tankard for wassailing

A Saxon stoneware tankard. Sold for €800 via Kunsthaus Lempertz KG (November 2023)

Toasts of health, wealth, and happiness are enjoyed around the world, as joyous celebrations are ushered in with a regional tipple and the clinking of glasses. It’s a custom that’s endured for centuries as nearly everyone from the ancient Hebrews, to Persians and Egyptians are said to have celebrated merriment with a toast. It was the same for the Saxons and the Huns, with their leader, Attila, fond of leading three rounds of toasts for each course at dinner.

The term “toast” has evolved over the centuries and can be traced to ancient Rome, where spiced and toasted bread was added to goblets to help combat the acidity of bitter wine. Taking its name from the Latin ‘tostus,’ meaning ‘to dry up’ or ‘scorch,’ raising a toast became so important to Roman culture that the Senate declared all drinkers must raise a glass to the first Roman emperor, Augustus, at every meal.

Alternatively, a decidedly voyeuristic tale suggests the origins of the term relate to a young woman’s beauty. The story goes she was bathing in public baths when an admirer decided the best way to acknowledge her was to fill his cup from the water and take a drink in her honor. The young woman became the ‘toast’ of the drink, while the gentleman was presumably left with an upset stomach.

It wasn’t just the preserve of the Romans though, as the ancient Greeks similarly drank to others’ well-being, exemplified by Ulysses who drank to the health of Achilles in The Odyssey. And like the Romans, the Greeks also guarded against the threat of poison with a toast as a good faith gesture to assure their drink wasn’t spiked.

Today, the custom of raising a toast is a familiar sight at birthdays, weddings and funerals, but the clinking of glasses or tankards is a custom thought to have been born in Europe and England. The threat of poison could once again have played its part, as the custom was intended to mix drinks when the glasses came together and lessen the likelihood of being poisoned. Or, it simply could be a joyous ritual.

Global Toasts

While the custom of raising a toast is shared worldwide, many countries and cultures celebrate in their own particular way. In Japan, China, and Korea, the customary toasts sound very similar, as toasters in Japan say “kanpai”, it’s “gan bei” in China, and in Korea it’s “gonbae”. However, each country has its own unique customs. In Korea, a drinker will empty a glass and shake out the last few drops before the host refills it. It’s customary that a glass is never topped up until it’s completely empty in Korea, whereas in Japan, a glass should never be empty and remain filled at all times.

In many Spanish-speaking countries, a rhyming toast of ‘arriba, Abajo, al centro, pa’ dentro’ celebrates the merriment of a drink with friends. This is accompanied by drinkers first raising their glass (arriba), lowering their glass (abajo), bringing it to the center (al centro), before finally taking a drink (pa’ dentro).

It’s the former Soviet state of Georgia that takes toasting to another level. In fact, there are approximately 150 basic toasts in Georgian, while at any celebration, a tamada (toastmaster) is appointed to create the right drinking atmosphere and initiate each toast. Typically, a tamada will raise a toast and the guests will respond by raising their glasses, before adding their own words to what becomes a story-like speech. Choruses of Dalotsya (to say a prayer) often lead a toast, which might be raised ‘to our meeting,’ ‘to those who have passed away,’ or ‘to Georgia.’

Wassail Wonders

The tradition of wassailing has to be the most the most distinctive custom of raising a toast. The practise is still undertaken in parts of rural England today – and its origins are even said to have helped to broker peace between warring tribes. Wassailing is a relic from England’s Anglo-Saxon past (approximately from 410 to 1066AD), when according to fifth century legend, the beautiful Saxon princess Rowena toasted her family’s rival, King Vortigern with a cup of wine and the words waes hael (good health). The toast had the desired effect as the warring king fell in love with Rowena and gifted the kingdom of Kent to her father. Try it if you ever find yourself in rural south-east England!

This would influence a custom that pre-dated Christianity in Britain and is still practised today. At the start of each year, Anglo-Saxon tradition decreed that the lord of the manor would greet the masses with a toast of waes hael, to which the crowd would reply drink hael (drink well), before the New Year celebrations would begin with a merry glass of something alcoholic. And it was likely followed by a few more glasses after that.

The ingredients of the wassail drink were often area specific, but it usually consisted of warm ale (typically British), wine, or cider that was blended with spices and honey. This was served in a large bowl and passed from one person (much like at a frat party) who would greet the next in line with a greeting of ‘wassail’. Such has been the popularity of the celebrations that traditionally take place on the Twelfth Night, or 5th January, that the bowls have taken on an increasing sophistication and decorative design over the years. And it’s during these celebrations that things start to get a little unusual.

Two distinct variations of wassailing prevail. The first (and perhaps more traditional) practise of wassailing can be found in fruit-growing areas of countryside where the trees that are blessed. The other involves drinkers and their bowl of alcohol going from house to house and singing traditional songs as they spread good cheer. This practise would over time evolve into carolling. And the practise is still evident in some carols, as the wassailers would demand, “now give us some figgy pudding”, before the demands turn to threats, “and we won’t go until we’ve got some”.

So, wherever you find yourself in the world, you too can spread cheer and merriment by raising a toast with a beer, a shot, or a bowl full of warm ale and cider. Just make sure not to clink glasses if you’re aspirationally posh.

Sources: Historic-UK.com | Merriam-Webster.com | Ancient-Origins.net | AtlasObscura.com | Champagne-Travels.com | Toastmasters.org | Snopes.com | Fluentu.com | History.org.uk | Telegraph.co.uk | HospitalityInsights.ehl.edu | EtiquetteScholar.com