Maverick Life

What happens at the office Christmas party might not stay at the office Christmas party

By Emilie Gambade 2 December 2019

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 26: More than 40 red topiary trees line the East colonnade as part of the holiday decorations at the White House November 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. The 2018 theme of the White House holiday decorations is 'American Treasures,' and features patriotic displays highlighting the country's 'unique heritage.' The White House expects to host 100 open houses and more than 30,000 guests who will tour the topiary trees, architectural models of major U.S. cities, the Gold Star family tree and national monuments in gingerbread. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A 2017 study revealed that only 36% of the people interviewed found the office party entertaining. Another survey found that ‘90% of employees say they would prefer to get a bonus or extra vacation days than have a holiday party’. So why are we still throwing a year-end gathering?   

A 2017 Randstad survey showed that although the holiday season sometimes rhymes with time off and bonuses, it also brings its cohort of events in celebration of the “holiday spirit” that can be highly stressful. Sixty-two percent of the survey’s respondents said “they feel obligated to attend their employer’s holiday party”, with younger employees feeling even more pressure to attend.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, says in an interview with Stephanie Fairyington for Thrive Global: “The expectation of carefree fun within a professional setting creates uncertainty: ‘There’s this pull to be professional and at the same time you’re at a party, so there’s a tug in the opposite direction to be casual and chummy. It creates a very uncertain mix, which drives anxiety.’”

For people suffering from social anxiety disorder, an “intense anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation”, office parties can be a seriously dreadful experience. And with 26% of people (in the US) claiming that they have done something they regret at a company party, and 10% claiming they have slept at their office after a company party, anxiety is understandable.

So, where does the Christmas party, that socialising affair (and at times team-building exercise) that sometimes stumbles and falls into potentially scandalous boozy decadence or gets cancelled with stone-cold silence, come from?

A story published in Mental Floss explains that during the 1930s and the Great Depression, “Businesses began throwing holiday parties for downtrodden workers who couldn’t afford to celebrate on their own.” Slowly, the office party moved from “an antidote to social formality” to a sort of let-it-loose colleague-friendly debauchery that had Christian churches and organisations plea for office party obliteration.

A 1964 article from the Ellensburg Daily Record claimed that: “The classic old-fashioned office Christmas celebration – at least as it is fondly recalled by many – was somewhere between a Roman orgy, a Sioux scalping raid, and the attack on the Bastille.” The article summed up the whole office party thing at the time, saying that it “gave the indoor peasants (sic) one day on which to blow off 364 days of accumulated steam”.

A number of years earlier, in 1948, Life magazine had sent a photographer to a New York insurance company to document the company’s Christmas party. The images published showed “a conga line and a frolicsome vice president” in action, where “even the most shrinking violet felt expansively aware of the brotherhood of man”, with pictures showing two women slightly lifting their skirts, next to one happy chap, with a caption that read: “Leg art – two stenographers hoist their skirts to pose with Assistant Department Head Al Lyons.”

But office party debauchery isn’t only a thing of the past.

In 2006, an employee from CBS crashed the Paramount Studios’ Christmas party and commented on Gawker on the epic night:

“I missed the actual tree lighting, so I don’t know whether Bono made it, but I did see the fireworks display, which scared the shit out of me. Seriously, most people didn’t see what I saw – the fireworks were launched from the top of the Bluhdorn building and the sparks showered down the side of the building. I fully expected the whole place to go up in flames.

“The actual party was divided between Stages 5 and 6, and employees were forced to walk down a narrow street that had been converted into a ‘Winter Wonderland’, complete with blaring holiday music and fake snow showering from the building tops… There was even an indoor Ferris wheel. But the best part was the Diwali-themed dance party in Stage 6. Several sari-clad dancers were posted around an enormous disco floor with spotlights and laser beams. Definitely gave the place a clubby, here’s-my-chance-to-hook-up-with-the-hot-intern kind of vibe. When I left, a few dozen Paramounters (or ‘Mounties’ as we call them) were getting their sweaty grind on to smooth beats of Justin Timberlake. I just hope Dreamgirls opens big and covers the cost of this debauchery.”

Five years later, a book called Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN described the cable sports channel’s Christmas party as “particularly wild”:

“A couple of them were drunken orgies, but who could blame these people in the middle of nowhere? It became like a big frat party. There were a lot of drugs being done in the bathroom. There was quite a bit of screwing going on afterward, a lot of it extramarital.”

Today, things have changed as in the #Metoo era, end-of-the-year office parties focus on the fun sans the debauchery. The New York Times noted in 2017, “The Holiday gatherings have become toned-down affairs as executives respond to demands to cut costs, improve company morale and address sexual harassment in the workplace.”

At US television network HBO, for years the company rented a grand ballroom at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square for a lavish holiday luncheon for its 2,500 employees. The New York Times says, “Waiters passed trays of sushi. Platters of pasta and roast chicken were laid out, alongside bountiful glasses of wine and beer” and the party cost about $300,000. Yet, recently, HBO decided to switch to offering its employees “an afternoon off with their co-workers to volunteer at a charity instead”. In 2017, 95% of HBO employees participated in the volunteering drive.

As for dropping the Christmas party altogether? In December 2018, US President Donald J Trump, already infamous for – among other things – a contentious relationship with the press, decided to cancel the annual Christmas press party.

WASHINGTON, DC – DECEMBER 31: As the House of Representatives prepares for a transition of power to Democrats, movers transport items including Christmas decorations from the offices of Republican leadership during a partial shutdown of the federal government on December 31, 2018 in Washington, DC. The partial shutdown will continue for at least a few more days as lawmakers are not scheduled to return to Washington until January 3, 2019. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The tradition had spanned decades at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave and was an opportunity for journalists to mingle with government officials, take pictures with the president and his family – Bill Clinton even posed for pictures with journalists days after his impeachment – and enjoy some relaxed time at the White House between decorative snowflakes, punch and canapés.

But just like that, with blood-red topiary trees lined up in the East Wing’s hallway as a backdrop, the Christmas White House press office party was dumped. ML

This story was first published as a newsletter. You can subscribe to Maverick Life’s weekly newsletters (sent out every Sunday) by clicking here.

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