A brief history of work Christmas parties

This is an extract from Martin Johnes, Christmas and the British: A Modern History (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016)

One reason for the ebbing of work was excitement over Christmas parties. These were not new phenomenon – some late nineteenth-century factories had held them for example – but they undoubtedly increased in number in the middle of the twentieth century and by 1978 one historian suggested that the office or works party was ‘almost universal’. 

Some were put on by the workers themselves without the support or sometimes blessing of the employers. For example, some post-war miners held their own underground parties when they were supposed to be working. That would probably have been unthinkable before nationalization, when workers were more controlled through the enforcement of regulations and payment by performance. But, after 1918, there was gradually more emphasis on both workers’ rights and rewarding their hardwork and loyalty. This might be through a festive party or outing for employees or even their children. One of the family of Farmiloes, a prosperous lead and glass merchant, remembered that the firm’s interwar Christmas dinners in a hotel as ‘something that was looked forward to very much … [because] for many people it was a fairly drab sort of life’.  Indeed, for shy people who did not socialize, such occasions could be rare opportunities to talk to people. 

There was always, however, a danger that staff might not respond in the way intended.  Attempts to get different grades and sections to mingle could lead to some awkward social situations. In 1938 one young Yorkshire man told Mass Observation he was not attending his works’ pantomime party because as a socialist he did not like his employer organizing his private life. Furthermore, he objected to having pay for it, did not like panto, and did not want to use his own time up seeing people he could see any day, especially when he loathed some of his fellow workers. 

After the war, company celebrations grew more elaborate. The 1952 Christmas party of the Welsh Directorate of the Forestry Commission, for example, took place at an Aberystwyth hotel and featured a concert given by staff, dancing and games. There were prizes too, including a bottle of sherry, a duck and a pair of nylons. By the late twentieth century, people were even wearing festive headgear, such as Santa hats, reindeer antlers and tinsel halos, for their Christmas dos. 

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But the more elaborate works and office parties became, the more they developed a reputation for excessive drinking. In 1970 the Health Education Council warned of the hazard of office parties for young females who might not be used to several quick rounds of free drinks and claimed it was the duty of senior staff to make sure they did not become hospital or police statistics. The reputation of office parties was not helped by the fact that some happened early in December, partly because venues could actually be difficult to book close to Christmas. In 1984 one writer claimed he had seen his first drunk secretary with tinsel in her hair on 12 November.  That was untypical but it did not help the office party’s cause. Nor did what the drinking could lead to. In 1970 one magazine joked that office parties could be an ‘unbridled riot’.

An anthropologist claimed ‘misbehaviour is what office Christmas parties are all about’; it was expected and customary. In a survey for her research, 90 per cent of respondents confessed to some form of office-party misbehaviour. Eating and drinking too much was the most common misdemeanour, although kissing and flirtation (especially amongst those under 40), as well as telling rude jokes, saying things that would not normally be said and acting a little silly were common behaviours too.

None of this was the debauchery that was often imagined. Indeed, there could positive outcomes to it; feuds were made up and long-held attractions brought out into the open. But those attractions were sometimes between people married to someone else and by the 21st century many companies had moved away from having an organized party because of concerns about excessive drinking, bad behaviour and sexual harassment. In 2004 a joint report by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and the TUC advised that mistletoe should not be provided at such parties. Some estimates put the number of firms not willing to have Christmas parties as high as 80 per cent but a 2005 survey in London found that 65 per cent of companies were having one.  Some of those were probably meals or receptions rather than parties and a 2004 survey suggested that over 80 per cent of businesses were doing something for their employees.  Indeed, the state sanctioned this and by 2013 companies were allowed to spend up to £150 a year on Christmas (or other) entertainment or presents for staff without it being regarded as a taxable benefit.  

Business researchers have argued that Christmas parties helped create a sense that organizations were fun and caring places to work and that a temporary relaxation of rules and powers structures meant those same hierarchies could be maintained in the rest of the year without challenge.  In some organizations, the coming together of different grades was formalized through festive role reversals such as officers serving the men in the armed forces or surgeons carving the turkey in hospital. Christmas thus perhaps played its part in maintaining workplace discipline and upholding the morale of staff often caught up in dull and repetitive jobs. Indeed, those firms that did nothing for their staff at Christmas risked demoralizing staff and encouraging a sense that they were not valued. So, too, could those who gave derisory festive benefits. A woman who worked for a chocolate manufacturer complained to the Daily Worker in 1938 that while she got an additional day off she received no overtime or bonus for all her hard work in the busy run up. There were accusations in 2004 that one cleaning company had given its workers a miserly £3 voucher for a local cafe as a Christmas bonus.

Author: HanesCymru

I teach history at Swansea University.

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