The Wild History of Holiday Office Parties

In 45 B.C., the Roman emperor Julius Caesar showed up for a holiday party with 2,000 of his soldiers at the home of the statesman Cicero outside of Naples. Fresh from conquests in Egypt and Spain, and known as a party guy, he was ready for some fun. He bathed, took a walk on the beach and then, helped by emetics,” ate and drank without scruple.”

And why not? It was the feast of Saturn, the down-home god of agriculture – the mid-December celebration called Saturnalia, a huge Roman favorite. Citizens would untie the bound feet of the god’s statue on December 17, and a week of carrying on would begin.

“Loose reins are given to public dissipation,” the philosopher Seneca reported.

Schools were closed. Gifts were exchanged. Masters and slaves swapped roles. Drinking, gambling, feasting and “singing naked” would take place, according to one writer of the time. The poet Catullus said Saturnalia was the best feast ever.

As for Caesar, at the peak of his fame that holiday season, “he was pleased and enjoyed himself,” wrote the statesman Cicero, who hosted the bash. “Trying to the temper, but not seriously inconvenient.”

Two thousand years later, ancient Rome is in ruins, but this stubborn December tradition survives – as the modern holiday office party.

Some things are different. The use of party emetics did not catch on. Nor, as far as we know, did naked singing. There remains, however, much that the Romans might recognize.

One year during a Christmas party at the White House, the West Wing burned down while the Marine band played and President Herbert Hoover watched, smoking a cigar. In New York in 1928, a Christmas fest held by a real-estate mogul sparked a riot in Manhattan. Someone got shoved through a plate-glass window and later sued.

Down through the years, from the Romans to the Republicans, holiday parties have been occasions for merriment, romance, indulgence, drunkenness, lechery, abandon, even assault and murder.

“What is the company policy here at Christmas?” a secretary asks during the party scene in the 1957 romantic comedy Desk Set.

“Anything goes,” comes the reply. “As long as you don’t lock the doors.”

The modern holiday office party can be traced to Victorian England, where novelist Charles Dickens is often credited with returning Christmas celebration to fashion, especially with the publication of his book A Christmas Carol the week before the holiday in 1843.

At one point in the story, the anti-Christmas Ebenezer Scrooge is shown in a dream the benevolence of his former employer, a jolly chap called Old Fezziwig. The scene is Fezziwig’s annual Christmas party, which may be the first depiction in modern English literature of a holiday office party.

“The floor was swept and watered, the lamps were trimmed, fuel was heaped upon the fire,” Dickens wrote. “The warehouse was as snug, and warm, and dry and bright a ballroom, as you would desire to see upon a winter’s night.

“In came a fiddler with a music book,” he wrote. “In came all the young men and women employed in the business. In came the housemaid, with her cousin, the baker. There was cake, and there was negus (a kind of punch), and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies and plenty of beer.”

A ghost points out to Scrooge how very easy it was for Fezziwig to make his employees happy.

The idea of employer benevolence went on to dominate holiday office parties as the 19th century gave way to the 20th. The custom was for the employer to appear among the workers and literally hand out money. Old newspaper files are filled with notices of the annual Christmas party thrown by this corporation or that, with the boss walking the shop floor handing out cash. On Christmas Eve 1929, C.W. Nash, president of the old Nash Motor Co., gave out more than US$800,000 in cash and gifts.

The giving of the Christmas bonus often was followed by eating and dancing. And drinking.

In Dickens’ day, there was the cozy holiday beverage “smoking bishop,” a brew of port, red wine, oranges, cloves and sugar. And Fezziwig’s negus was a mix of wine, sugar, spices and fruit that was heated with a fireplace poker.

As the decades passed, though, office party drinks became more straightforward. And their consumption, and related misconduct, became mythical.

Lore from the middle of the last century tended to reference one Smithers, from accounting, who got loaded and told off the boss, who was chasing Miss Crabtree around the water cooler, while everybody downed the wicked broth cooked up by the boys in the print shop. Spouses, by the way, were not invited to those affairs.

“The annual Office Party starts along about noon on December 24 and ends two or three months later, depending on how long it takes the boss to find out who set fire to his wastebasket, threw the water cooler out the window and betrayed Miss O’Malley in the men’s washroom.” So wrote the New Yorker’s Corey Ford in his 1951 humor book, The Office Party. But the reality of the overwrought holiday fete could be decidedly unfunny. Fights broke out. Merrymakers were injured or killed in car accidents on the way home. And periodically the party was the venue for homicide, usually over a romance gone bad.

In 1939, in New York City, an ink company paymaster shot to death a female employee at the office Christmas party, then killed himself.

Police, lawyers, members of the clergy and company supervisors took notice. Party misconduct was unhealthy for the firm – and bad for employees and their families. Court cases would later find employers liable for death or injury incurred by employees who got drunk at holiday office parties. And the old-fashioned pass at the secretary was no longer a joke.

In 1953, the new Republican administration decided to enforce an old regulation against drinking in government buildings and halt the seasonal party held at the State Department, traditionally hosted by the press. Aghast, one letter writer protested: “The face of official Washington has been permanently changed!”

But times were changing. “Maybe if the malpractice is sufficiently exposed,” a popular Washington newspaper columnist wrote in the early 1960s, “the whole office-partying program will go into discard.”

Then came the go-go 70s and 80s, and an interest in the psychology of corporate culture. It turned out a company was a living being, like an amoeba, and had needs. Who knew? One thing a company needed was happy employees, and happy employees needed to have fun. And – Hail, Caesar! – the best way to have fun was to party!

There were, of course, many ways to have company fun. These were revealed via surveys conducted by PhDs. Wells Fargo, it was learned, had an employee awards program that included, among other prizes, a bag of garden fertilizer provided by horses that pulled the company stagecoach.

Ben and Jerry’s ice cream makers had a “joy gang,” to plan company festivities. There was a list of the top 30 business motivational songs, numbers such as Put a Little Love in Your Heart and We Are Family. This was serious.

In 1979, the Boeing Co. got into the Guinness Book of World Records for its two-day holiday blast for 103,000 people in the Seattle Kingdome. A big Wisconsin-based printing company once had a Yule party with the founder dressed as an admiral leading executives dressed as sailors in songs from what they called HMS Printafor.

The next decade brought economic insecurity, caution and social concerns. Some party money went for donations to the homeless and other causes.

The Christmas bonus, long gone, had been replaced by “performance-driven” incentives. With that in mind, experts studied party dynamics: It was found that social anxiety lowered IQ. Alcohol lowered inhibitions. “So you’re kind of dumb, and now you’ve got fewer inhibitions,” one scholar warned. Office partying, like everything else, required skill, training and strategies, and it began to sound a lot like work.

Then came the September 11, 2001, attacks and the slaughter of office workers in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In the aftermath, holiday office celebration almost ceased. “Basically, holiday parties were nonexistent,” says Susan Lacz, a principal at Ridgewells, a catering company.

Sanitized, scrutinized and downsized, the holiday office party seemed doomed. But the human yearning to gather for the rites of winter still smoldered. Despite tight company budgets, the national mood and the state of the global economy, by 2002 the gloom had lifted. The year of mourning was over, and there was a sense that terrorism should not conquer life.

“It’s human nature,” Lacz says. “It’s what we do. Having a need to be with others. It’s celebratory. It’s warmth.”

But lessons were learned. Nowadays there are often two company parties – one for employees and one for customers. The size of the party also depends on the fortunes of the industry. There have been troubles in telecommunications but good times for oil and defense.

Caesar was attending his last Saturnalia blowout that long-ago December. By March he was dead, stabbed 23 times by a group of 6o jealous assassins. Cicero, the party host, didn’t last, either. Two years after the party, he was tracked down by his enemies and decapitated. The date was December 7, and all over Rome people were preparing again for the annual feast.

“For how many years shall this festival abide?” the Roman poet Statius asked a century later.

As long as the hills of Latium survive and Rome stands, he answered himself: “Never shall age destroy so holy a day.” (MER/WP)

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