This is the only time when the pretty file clerk gets kissed in public and the homely one gets kissed at all.
– Life Magazine, December 27, 1948
Had Wayne Ritchie not tried to stick up the bartender, it might’ve been the best Christmas party ever.
It was December 1957, and Ritchie was reveling with his fellow federal employees in a San Francisco post office. Tumblers filled with ice and bourbon were handed out like favors while law enforcement personnel—Ritchie was a U.S. marshal—decompressed from the stress of their job and the holiday season.
Abruptly, Ritchie became paranoid. He decided his co-workers didn’t like him. He downed drinks. Colors blurred. Before he knew it, Ritchie had pulled out his service weapon and tried to rob a bartender to fund his escape from the city. A patron promptly rapped him on the head from behind, knocking him unconscious.
Decades later, Ritchie learned of an absurdly unethical government experiment to better understand LSD’s effects, leading Ritchie to believe that he was one of the many subjects that the drug had driven out of their minds.
As holiday office party stories go, it’s a hard one to top. But thanks to Mad Men and its damning portrayal of the chauvinist, sexist workforce in the 1950s, Ritchie’s experience doesn't seem that out of the ordinary. Lubricated with alcohol and filled with a year’s worth of pent-up frustrations at co-workers and bosses, the holiday mixer has become synonymous with reckless behavior: gin in the water coolers, men separated from their pants, and post-party personnel issues.
Though lawyers and activist groups have largely tamed the more sensational gatherings, there was a time of reports of people needing to convince a coworker not to hang outside a windowsill by their fingertips. Come Monday, nothing more would be said. But to be fair, civilization has always had its "blow off" days.
The Greeks were among the societies that assigned times when it was okay to ignore or break the rules and when authority could be mocked. But it wasn’t until the Great Depression that businesses began throwing holiday parties for downtrodden workers who couldn’t afford to celebrate on their own.
By the time America had emerged from World War II and women had joined the workforce in increasing numbers, get-togethers began amplifying the existing gender inequality that was present in the sober office routine. When Life dispatched a photographer to the Schiff Terhune insurance offices in 1948, the lens captured female subordinates dancing with the pants-less vice president and stenographers raising their skirt hems for the amusement of a department head. The magazine called the tradition a “great leveler” and an “antidote to social formality.”
It wasn’t long before the “great leveler” began to antagonize critics—particularly the wives of men who heard second-hand about how their spouses had cornered secretaries under mistletoe or sprained their ankles chasing their subordinates around desks all night.
If a husband's actions didn’t provoke a divorce, he might be counted on to come home with a black eye: fights among office rivals were fairly common, though seemingly forgotten by daylight. Misbehavior was understood; mocking superiors, humanizing them, was permitted. The only taboo that could lead to repercussions was flirting with the boss’s wife.
By the mid-1950s, church groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union began to exert pressure on businesses over the holiday hedonism: Passing out in a janitor’s closet was not in the spirit of the season, they argued. Some companies bowed to the pressure, handing out bonuses and turkeys and skipping festivities. In Chicago, offices started taking money earmarked for food and drink and donating it to charities instead.
There were legal issues to consider, too. Lawsuits brought a newfound anxiety over being liable if a reveler drove home drunk and got into an accident. The companies that were still holding parties relocated them to hotels or banquet halls to help dilute responsibility. To placate wives, some firms also began hosting family holiday picnics in the late summer, the sunlight deterring improper behavior. (Not coincidentally, a seasonal change was an excellent excuse not to hand out bonuses.)
Still, the party played an important part in climbing the corporate ladder. Career counselors advised ambitious workers that skipping a party was like cutting your own throat: A boss spends hundreds or thousands on food and booze and you don’t show? Might as well slap him. But workers had tired of seasonal obligations; not just at work, but with schools and family. They began to wish for days off rather than what amounted to an obligated office “off” day.
By the 1970s and 1980s, more sedate celebrations had generally taken over. There were a few exceptions, however. In their book These Guys Have All the Fun, Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller quoted former ESPN executive Andy Brilliant describing the network’s seasonal affairs as something out of Sodom. Orgies were not uncommon, Brilliant said, nor were hard drugs. But by the 1990s, most companies were too fearful of leaving themselves exposed (legally) and too cash-strapped in a wheezing economy to justify frivolous parties. An unwanted advance used to mean an appointment with personnel; now, it meant a pink slip. The uninhibited office blowout had been tamed by advancing taste. “The traditional Christmas party,” declared business consultant Dot Booth to the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “is outdated and immature.”
As corporate logic went, the purpose of the Christmas party was to foster and strengthen working relationships. It turns out that it doesn’t do a terribly good job of either. A 2007 Columbia University study found that most employees stuck to their existing circle of office friends. While a company function can be a statement of how well a company is doing (fancy catering! ritzy location!), it rarely has a lasting impact on office dynamics.
Today’s office parties are often perceived by singles as an excuse to flirt, not cheat or get into physical altercations with people in accounting. In England, photocopying bare bottoms is about as risqué as parties get. While you can still occasionally find a nearly-nude Santa dancing on a table, variables like ethics, gender equality, and civil judgments have rendered the infamous ‘50s gatherings largely obsolete.
As for Wayne Ritchie? After coming around, he resigned from his duties as a marshal and was slapped with a $500 fine. A cop high on LSD and robbing a bar wasn’t worth jail time. It was just another 1950s Christmas at the office.