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April 2024
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Here's to ...

Holiday toasting when everyone feels a little burnt around the edges.

By John Cadley

Illustration of man in green shirt breaking wine glass
Illustration by Bart Browne

It’s December, a time when we would normally be engaged in joyous holiday merrymaking. This year we’ll simply be celebrating the fact that we made it to December—no small thing considering 2020 was one of the most frightening years since the Great Disco Plague of 1970. Social distancing, aggressive hand washing, mass nostril swabbing … who could have imagined? I still can’t get used to everyone wearing a mask. If it’s homemade I think I’m being robbed; if it’s light blue I’m afraid someone’s going to remove my gallbladder.

And yet, being the social animals that we are, people will have December get-togethers, if only virtually, and someone will call for a toast. Who will they call on to give it? The Toastmaster. The master of toasts. You. Are you ready?

I have full confidence that in normal times any Toastmaster could give a rousing toast without thinking twice. In the time of COVID, however, some forethought is in order. First and foremost, funny is out. As of February 12, 2020, 97.4% of the world’s population lost its sense of humor. There was nothing to laugh about anyway. Twenty-twenty was the first year since the dawn of civilization when absolutely nothing funny happened. Nothing. I thought maybe business magnate Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starship project to send humans to Mars was worth a chuckle, but now it seems like an eminently sensible idea. Floods, fires, and pandemics are one thing, but when a 3.1 magnitude earthquake hits New Jersey—yeah, that happened—it’s time for a nice long trip into space.

The rule to never toast yourself still applies as well. Yes, you’ve been through a lot and yes, you deserve recognition for surviving 2020 without your hair turning gray overnight. Nevertheless, raising a glass and saying, “Here’s to me,” just looks bad. What if others did it? You’d have a group of people all toasting themselves, which is even more ridiculous than an earthquake in New Jersey.

Avoid off-color toasts as well. Decorum discourages it; history warns against it. According to an article about toasting by Lorraine Eaton in a Virginia newspaper, the English started raising their glasses around A.D. 450, and by the 17th century to drink without toasting was considered rude. Eaton follows this observation with the sentence: “Debauchery followed.” See, that’s the problem. Saying “Here’s mud in your eye” is one thing, but when the toast veers into the risqué, you might be setting the tone for behavior that is referred to in more genteel circles as misbehavior. Haven’t you had enough trouble for one year?

“Hear! Hear!” and “Bottoms up!” may be all right for some, but not for a Toastmaster. You can do better.

Clichés are off-limits, too. You may be hard-pressed to find just the right words in these challenging times, but whatever you do, don’t start with “in these challenging times.” How many times have you heard that? Likewise, “Hear! Hear!” and “Bottoms up!” may be all right for some, but not for a Toastmaster. You can do better. You must do better, especially if there’s another Toastmaster present who may feel obligated to report you for dereliction in the line of duty.

You really have only two themes that won’t get you into trouble: cheery optimism or heartfelt sentimentality. You start, as always, by standing up and getting everyone’s attention. Clinking a glass is usually a no-no, but since the custom comes from olden times when they rang bells to thwart the devil, I say do it. We need all the help we can get. Then begin with “I’d like to propose a toast.” It sounds so much better than “Hey everybody, shut up!” If you go the optimism route, you could wax eloquent with something like, “Here’s to 2021 … and to the abiding human faith that the darkest events of the past can never obscure the brightest hopes for the future.” To me that’s more inspiring than, “How much worse can it get?”

If you opt for sentimentality, remember that a little goes a long way. It’s like putting sugar in your coffee—better to use a teaspoon than a shovel.

In all likelihood you’ll be giving your toast by Zoom, which should be plenty of incentive to give a good one. Extrapolating from the dictum by the famed English writer Dr. Samuel Johnson that nothing clears a person’s head like the shadow of the gallows, we could say similarly that nothing clears a Toastmaster’s head like the prospect of the mute button. And so I propose a toast to your holiday toast for 2020. Cheers!

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