The informant is a 21-year old student attending the University of California Berkeley. She is majoring in Media Studies and Journalism with a minor in Hebrew. She grew up in West Los Angeles with her two parents, immigrants from the Soviet Union. The following is what she said when I asked about her step-daughter’s wedding a few years ago, of which I was in attendance.
Informant: “Drinking is really big in Russian culture—you probably know that. We have a lot of family dinners and there is always drinking, of wine or vodka. Guest will bring wine or the host will bring out their favorite wines. My parents actually have a whole spreadsheet of the different wines in their wine closet. Since drinking is so much a part of Russian culture, there are traditions that go along with it. The biggest thing I can think of, I think, would be toasts. Like, there are certain traditions of what toasts you say in what order. Second toast is usually for the host. The first toast is always for the occasion you are gathered for, and second for the host. The third one is for those who are at sea.”
Interviewer: “Are there lots of people at sea…?”
Informant: “No. We say ‘at sea’, but it’s really more a reference to those who are not with us—either dead or not the at the dinner table.”
Interviewer: “Hmm, that’s really interesting that the toast for people not at the table is the ‘at sea’ toast. Do you have any idea why that is?
Informant: “No, I don’t know. I mean, drinking culture was a big think in Russia in general. And I guess originally there may have been a lot of traders? Or people at sea? What I think is so distinct about Russian drinking is this tradition of you can’t drink unless you toast. You have to validate your drinking with a toast.”
What my informant said about toasts being a way of validating drinking stuck with me. I feel like a lot of folklore, or festivals and rituals, at least, is centered in validation—validating customs already set in place, validating a relationship or new union to be had, validating a new stage in a person’s life, validating one’s entering adulthood, etc. What is sometimes seen as merely paying homage to an earlier time, or to a certain religion one follows, usually has more influence than that.
When I asked my informant about why the third toast is said for those “at sea”, when no one I know of her family is actually off at sea, it seemed like the first time the informant had really been considering the question. This illustrates the tendency not to question the traditions and the folklore one grows up with, contrasted with the tendency many people have to critique or ridicule other traditions and folklore, ones the criticizing individual hasn’t grown up with. This speaks to the us them mentality that we see quite often with folklore—one example of the mentality’s presence is in practical jokes, a form of folklore that often serves as an initiation, or a demonstration of the tightness of one group and the outsider-ness of the one being pranked. However, it is worth noting that in the person being pranked, they are many times being initiated into the group of the pranksters…
For a slightly different interpretation of the third toast, see an article in the New York Times from 1995: