Office Christmas Parties–A backward glance

When I think back on office holiday parties, I often see Jack Lemon (Days of Wine and Roses, The Apartment) with a martini glass in his hand or sometimes I see myself, with a glass of scotch, as I page through a cheery old John Cheever story of an exec’s outward grace and inner corruption.

But there are more personal memories from long ago that many of us of a certain age share: holiday parties where the kissing under the mistletoe looked real, where we found out what kind of drunk the senior partner was, where a couple not married to each were far less than innocently engaged, where class, education and economic status were leveled in the levity of a holiday song.

Christmas parties back then were, for some senior managers, a way to do some “job evaluation” of a potential comer in the organization and a chance to see how they would behave in social settings. But mainly– good times or bad– the office party served as recognition by all that “we’re kind of a family, we’re in this all together.”

Recently in Chicago, a few enlightened souls threw an overwhelmingly successful Christmas party at a nice downtown venue for people out of work. Over 500 showed up for free hotdogs, a one-hour pass to an open bar and all the commiserating they could handle. Ostensibly the purpose was to provide attendees with an opportunity for networking, but most saw it for what it was: a random act of kindness for some down on their luck workers. But when the reporter from the local public radio station asked the organizer if he expected some craziness, he replied, “I certainly hope so.”

But the Christmas party tradition, like passing out of turkeys or hams for the hourly guys, has not just changed. It’s pretty much dead. For example, a cousin works at a law firm where for the past decade attorneys and support staff have had separate parties at holiday time. Can’t be too careful in this litigious society! And when the market crashed last year, it provided cover for some companies to end the tradition all together.

The explanation is that people today are too busy with their own personal lives. The community of office life seems to live only on the TV show of that name (The Office) or in that re-creation of earlier business days, Mad Men. People now work from home, or from Bangalore. Or in some cases, the divide between the boss and employee has become so wide that even a friendly holiday party remains unfriendly and cannot bring them back together

They are stretched thin, putting in too many hours in front of screens. Their communities are web based, and the baby (or grandpa) still needs changing. The fun and camaraderie of life at work are but “mystic chords of memory” to quote Abraham Lincoln.

What has been gained is recognition of the diversity of interests and time sensitivity of today’s business world. What has been lost is the celebration of work and the community of work.

So, to the office party, Hail and Farewell! Let’s raise a glass of kindness for days of auld lang syne!

We thank Frank Corrado, our publisher, for his generous thoughts and observations regarding holiday parties.

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