The tradition of the loving-cup is very old. Essentially, it is the sharing of a drink as part of a ceremony of welcome and expression of friendship: in ancient times, an elaborate drinking vessel would be proferred to a guest and both he and the host would drink from it. The sharing of a cup, a practise common to other religions as well as Christianity, indicated fellowship, the drinkers being bound by this experience to respect each other. There was also the custom of the host or someone of his household – such as the daughter of the establishment – first drinking from the cup and then offering it to the honoured guest, as a sign that the wine was wholesome.
Today the loving-cup is still passed at many City of London and other ceremonial feasts and banquets. The cups used often have two handles, so that their considerable weight may be easily held and passed around. What happens can vary according to the occasion, but frequently the procedure is that the cup is offered, with a bow, by someone who takes off the cover (if there is one) and then stands facing the drinker in an attitude of respect; the drinker, having bowed and received the cup, drinks from it, meanwhile facing the one who has proffered it. At the same time, the person on the other side of the drinker also stands up and faces away from them – so that the back of the drinker is guarded against any enemy. The drinker then puts down the cup and bows to the offerer – on his or her right. Then he passes it to the left, where the person who had been standing to guard the back of the drinker, turns to them, bows, receives it and drinks in their turn, the person on their left meanwhile rising to guard them. The procedure generally takes place at the end of formal banquets and is accompanied by music.