Tonight, celebrants around the world will raise a glass to toast the New Year. Where did this tradition come from? Why do we raise a glass and drink (personally, I’ll be using Ginger Ale tonight) to someone’s health and well-being? What does alcohol have to do with wishing, anyway?
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the expression “to propose a toast” comes from the use of spiced toast to flavor drinks in the 1700s. This helps us understand where the term “toasting” comes from, but again, why do people do it?
Since the dawn of time (or perhaps the dawn of fermentation), alcohol has been associated with spiritual things, due to its mind-altering qualities. People often have a tendency to confuse intoxication (note the root word “toxic”) with spiritual experience.
In the year 1610, the word “spirits” was first used to refer to a “volatile substance” by alchemists. Later, the term was narrowed to “strong alcoholic liquor” by 1678.
The ancient tradition of making a wish when sharing spirits comes from the idea of offering alcohol as gift to God or gods. The Online Etymology Dictionary defines a libation as “pouring out of wine in honor of a god.” When a person offers a libation, he pours a bit of the alcohol on the ground prior to drinking. The spilt alcohol is an offering to God. The drunk alcohol is said to be sharing a drink with God. So you could say that a toast is really a prayer, powered by alcohol.
So, when you share your Diet Pepsi or whatever this New Year’s Eve, will you add a little spice from toasted bread? When you make your toast, will you drink first, or pour it on the ground? The real question isn’t about your relationship with “spirits” this New Year’s Eve. The real question is—what is your relationship with The Spirit? Which will you trust with each day of your new year?