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The Evolution of the Office Christmas Party

Douglas Denton Church


  • Changing social norms and increased use of technology in the office has transformed the Christmas parties, resulting in a more subdued atmosphere.
  • In the 1950s, Christmas parties were marked by excessive drinking and wild behavior.
  • In the 1990s, concerns about inappropriate conduct led to the curtailment of these events, with restrictions on alcohol and a shift towards more restrained behavior.
  • Now employees should be cautious at such gatherings due to the presence of ulterior motives or potential blackmail.
The Evolution of the Office Christmas Party Neroznak

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As a child of the 50’s, my introduction to the office Christmas party began when I was a law student and serving as a clerk to one of our appellate court judges.  The daily routine was fairly sober (and somber) and the idea of having a Christmas party was the product of a gathering of the law clerks after work one November day.  We agreed that it was unlikely that any of the Judges would actually come, but perhaps we could get some petty cash funds to help with purchasing the food and beverage for the party! We located a party room at one of our colleague’s apartment complexes that could be reserved for free, put together an invitation, and set out to gather decorations and party favors.  Ultimately, on the day before the party we headed to the liquor store and purchased a variety of libations to satisfy any taste in booze.  Pizzas were ordered for the “food” portion of the event, and we were ready!  Imagine our surprise when ALL of the Judges showed up and immediately got into the holiday spirit (and spirits)!  Someone has written about these events in the 60’s and 70’s as the time when pent up frustrations met up with reckless behavior fueled by alcohol. So true!  Since I’ve probably said too much already, I’ll leave it to your imagination as to what happened that evening, but there are countless stories, movies, articles, etc., written about the excesses that characterized the office party in those days.  The aftermath included divorces, DUI’s, gross embarrassment upon return to the office, and stories that will last a lifetime! There are HR department policies that are now part of the common place office handbook that address the office Christmas party!  You know things have changed drastically when a party is reduced to a policy in the handbook!

I’m not exactly sure when the evolution began but it was clear to most office managers that this notion of “office approved debauchery” was probably not in the long-term best interests of the business, and so the curtailing began in earnest in the 90’s.  Evening office parties were replaced by Christmas luncheons.  Hard liquor was replaced with wine and beer or non-alcoholic beverages.  If, as was true in the earlier times, “what happens at the office Christmas party, stays at the office Christmas party,” that could no longer be counted on to prevent visits from HR over abusive or misplaced behavior. According to a survey conducted a number of years ago by the Society for Human Resource Management, 59% of human resource professionals said their companies planned to serve alcohol during an office Christmas party.  This suggests that even with the more restrained approach to the event alcohol remains a potent ingredient of the party format for whatever reason! Maybe the reason is obvious, actually: In Vino Veritas! It’s amazing how easy it is to forget that today literally everyone is carrying a camera in their cell phone and they show no hesitation in recording for posterity anything remotely interesting!  That could range from just catching the boss swigging a beer…(not too bad) to Leslie from accounting deciding to do an impromptu dance on the library table!  It has been said that there were times when clothes were removed, sexual advances were made to the absolutely wrong people…the bosses wife for one...and other degrees of bad behavior that went UNRECORDED and therefore lost in the mists of time! That is no longer true! If you don’t recognize the probability that whatever you do will survive the event, then you are either too old to be there in the first place or you drank too much already and have lost track of reality! Assume that someone will record EVERYTHING! Besides the obvious problems associated with being videoed in compromising states of behavior, there are other risks!  It has been reliably reported that it is not uncommon for “certain people” to come to the office Christmas party with both preconceived notions and ulterior motives!  The “preconceived notions” part has to do with the fact that “Joe” in the research department who always seems so dour at work turns into a wild man at the party with one glass of wine!  Who knew?  Joe turns out to be the life of the party and what was anticipated to be a boring event, turns into great fun! (The opposite is also true:  Expected “wild” and got “mild”). The “ulterior motive” piece has to do with “Sue” from the transcription department who has her eyes on “Bill,” an unmarried partner with hopes that he will give her a “ride home!” There are many extensions of this theme and many are totally innocent. However, it is not unheard of in the annals of HR mishaps that blackmail has raised its ugly head! Beware the innocent touch, rub, pat on the back, suggestive comment, etc!!

It would be interesting to conduct a survey of law firms to see which of the following categories they believe fairly portrays their approach to the Office Christmas Party:

  1. Lunch only, no alcohol
  2. Lunch with alcohol
  3. Dinner with no alcohol
  4. Dinner with alcohol
  5. Religious element including non-secular Christmas caroling
  6. Pre-party written warning to be on good behavior
  7. Ban on cell phones/cameras
  8. Dress code
  9. No warning and no limitations of any kind on anything
  10. Donation to worthy charity in lieu of party

If you are interested in the results of this survey, first of all, send me your responses and they will be corelated into a response that will be published in a later edition…or not! I suspect that the survey will show that, as in many other areas of our lives today, we are far more conscious of the potential for harm to oneself or others as a product of the “bad behavior” associated with the Christmas Party of Olde and so we refrain, avoid and stick to “good behavior” by eliminating the risks.  Whether that is good or bad is up to you but this is for sure:  There will be an entire generation of great stories that will never be told about the “wild and crazy” office Christmas party because it never happened!