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On the Heathen Practice of Toasting
2003-03-17

hen I was editor of The Reader, one of my favorite pastimes was tracking down the history of holidays and holiday customs. There was actually an element of malice involved. As a Jew growing up in the United States, it was easy to feel that we do not live in a secular country at all, one that, by its very Constitution, prohibits the intermingling of religion and government. Instead, I felt utterly surrounded by Christianity, like I was a little pebble floating in a great ocean of raging fundamentalists, nativity scenes on State Capitol Building lawns, hymns sung in choir practice, and comic strips, such as B.C. that, without warning, would suddenly start witnessing the Gospel. Usually I didn't mind this -- it is just part and parcel of being a minority -- but during the holidays it gets to be a bit much.

Now, I am a fan of Christmas, I really am. I consider it to be a mostly secular holiday, devoid of all but the slightest religious contents, which might be why some of the more extreme branches of Christianity take such pains to ignore it. Even St. Nicholas, who is an actual Christian saint, is so utterly misrepresented by the holiday that he can hardly be considered the same person. The historical St. Nicholas was young and undoubtedly deeply tanned, as he lived in what is now modern-day Turkey, and made his reputation for battling the Arian heresy, which nobody much cares about nowadays. Santa Claus, by comparison, is a fat man with a jolly laugh and a flowing beard that lives at the North Pole and distributes presents, an image owing as much to Harper's Weekly and Coca Cola as it does to history. I feel certain that should St. Nick and Santy Claus meet on a street corner, they would not recognize each other.

But still, once in a while something will happen to remind me of my status as a religious minority. Once, for no clear reason, a car pulled to a stop next to me. The driver pointed at a wooden cross hanging from his rear-view mirror and cried out at me, shouting "Christian!" with as loud a voice as he could muster. This sort of thing can be very confusing. Briefly, bewildered, I thought he might believe me to be a vampire, and was pointing out the cross as a protective measure. Then I realized that I had just emerged from a synagogue, and, for whatever reason, this driver needed to establish his position as part of this country's religious majority to me, a member of one of its minorities.

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So, when given the opportunity, I enjoy pointing out that much of what passes as Christianity is in fact pagan in origin. I feel a strange kinship with the pagan. I have no real desire to light huge wheels of holly and send them spinning down the side of a hill, as the Germans once did, forming the basis for the modern Christmas wreath -- although I would love to watch such a thing. Neither am I keen on human sacrifices, although there is scant evidence that pagan religions frequently engaged in such a thing. But the pagans never really asked to stop being pagans; Instead, Christianity rolled in more or less with the Roman Empire, seized the pagans' lands by force, and enaged in relentless campaigns to convert the population. Now, I do not wish to have much to do with modern day pagans, who practice a mostly invented religion and sometimes seem to have little to offer other than the (admittedly appreciated) spectacle of watching wan young girls prance naked in the woods. But when I discover that some celebratory element of modern culture is residue of our pagan pasts, I enjoy it that much more.

Take toasts, for example -- a practice that I happily categorize as an example of a despised poetic form. Toasts seem a quaint practice on the surface, now mostly reserved for weddings and retirement parties. The celebrants break out the champagne and pass around the Dixie Cups, holding them aloft as one from among the group stutters out a few kind words and a few more bad jokes. Who among these people knows the origins of this behavior? Who among them knows that the ancient pagans did much the same thing? The Greeks and Romans -- great pagans all, prior to 337 A.D. and the deathbed conversion of Emperor Constantine -- offered up toasts to their gods, their dead, and their benefactors. Some would offer toasts to every letter in their mistresses' names, drinking a glass with each toast. It is no wonder that Roman feasts frequently included vomiting as part of the evening's activities.

This source of this name, "toasting," is obscure. Some historians believe that it arises from our ancestors dunking pieces of scorched bread into tankards of beer or wine to improve the taste, but how foul could that ancient liquor have been? Modern drinkers consume bitter, dark beers with relish, and none of them seem to grope around them for a chunk of toast to cover the taste.

One author, Paul Dickson, insists that the modern toast got its start in Bath, England in 1709, a fact that I must say delights me. I spent a year in Bath when I was a boy, and feel an entirely unearned pride that my biography so slightly dovetails with that of the toast. The city is named for its magnificent Roman baths, which are reputed to have the power to heal the sick -- I swam in them when I was 10, and no doubt this is the reason for my robust good health, which includes a chronic cough. According to Dickson, an attractive young woman set out to bathe one day. A local lad was so struck by her beauty that he raised up a glass of her bathwater and drank it in her honor. If this is true, then we narrowly avoided a very different custom for our group celebrations. It is easy to imagine a wedding reception in which both the bride and the groom immerse themselves in a vat of water from which all their guests must cheerfully drink. Hopefully, they would throw in a few croutons to improve the taste.

Instead, briefly, toasting became a magnificent tradition. While occasionally falling out of favor (as pointed out on the Webpage Tom's World), toasting was outlawed by Charles the Great, Maximillian, Charles V, Louis XIV and the entirety of colonial Massachusetts), a well-crafted toast has become a nearly-universal source of pride. From the simplest (a hearty cry of skäl in Sweden or banzai in Japan) to the winding, poetic, hour-long toasts that briefly came into vogue in Ireland, it has been a long time since the hunting gods took any pleasure in the practice.

There was a period when no party would be complete without the local wags raising their glasses and reciting a few dozen well-rehearsed toasts they had memorized. As I have said before, I would like to see this practice return, and to that end I offer up a few of my favorites. View these as a starting point; collections of clever sayings and artful witticisms abound, waiting for someone to recite them while holding a liquor glass high into the air.

Here’s to girls and gunpowder! — Gregory Peck

Drink is the feast of reason and the flow of soul. — Alexander Pope

A toast to your coffin.
May it be made of 100-year-old oak,
And may we plant the tree together, tomorrow. — Anonymous

You’ve gained weight, haven’t you? — Traditional Japanese toast

Champagne to our real friends
And a real pain to our sham friends. — Anonymous

May you live all the days of your life. — Jonathan Swift

And, of course, Cheers!


© Max Sparber. Click for republication information.


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Posted by UkuleleKing at 3:04 a.m.

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