I have been asked on more than one occasion the meaning of the phrase Sláinte mhaith which appears at the end of each of my posts.  These are the words of an Irish toast which are pronounced ‘slawncha va’.  It means ‘good health’.  It is often shortened to just Sláinte.  If you have ever experienced a true Irish pub, in all likelihood you will have witnessed the raising of a glass and Sláinte given as a toast.

A toast is a ritual in which a drink is taken as an expression of honour or goodwill.  As legend has it the custom of touching glasses came from concerns about poisoning.  By one account, clinking glasses together would cause each drink to spill over into the other glasses.  Another theory is that the word toast became associated with the 17th century custom of flavouring drinks with spiced toast.

The International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture says toasting “is probably a secular vestige of ancient sacrificial libations in which a sacred liquid was offered to the gods: blood or wine in exchange for a wish, a prayer summarized in the words ‘long life!’ or ‘to your health!'”

Toasting has deep roots in Western culture, with some anthropologists suggesting that it goes back to ancient religious rites. While a toast is generally positive — good health and good luck are common — the act carries certain negative superstitions in at least three European countries. Making eye contact while toasting is considered polite in many countries and the penalties for failing to do so can be severe. French and German superstition suggests that you’ll suffer through seven years of ‘bad sex’ if you don’t maintain eye contact during a toast. Many Spanish believe that the same curse will befall those who toast with glasses of water.  Toasting with an empty glass may be viewed by some as acceptable behavior for the non-drinker though pretending to drink from an empty glass seems ridiculous.  I am not sure how the people who think toasting with water is not acceptable feel about toasting with an empty glass.  However, in many countries toasting with an empty glass is preferable to refusing a toast altogether.

Irrelevant of which theory is true, toasting traditionally involves alcoholic beverages. Sparkling wine, often Champagne, is considered festive and is widely associated with New Year’s Eve and other celebrations. Many people nowadays substitute sparkling fruit juice (often packaged in champagne-style bottles).

The words used during a toast vary from country to country, though the meaning is very similar.  The Scots of the western half of Scotland, in Scottish Gaelic, say ‘dheagh shlàinte, (pronounced like ‘do slawncha’).  This is often responded  with ‘slàinte agad-sa”, which literally means “health at yourself”.  Scots, like the English, and now Canadians and Americans, often now use the word ‘cheers’.

In Hebrew, it is’ L’chayim’; in French it is ‘À votre santé’; the Germans often say ‘Prost’ (rhymes with toast); in Spanish it is ‘Salud’; in Portuguese it is ‘Saude’; and the Italians say ‘Salute’.

So if a toast is offered up this year at a holiday gathering (no matter how small that gathering may be) now you have some insight as to how the tradition may have began.

Sláinte mhaith

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