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When Office Christmas Parties Were Totally Insane

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.   

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7 Surprising Uses for Tequila
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Happy National Margarita Day! While you could celebrate by having a few drinks, you could also skip the hangover by unlocking one of tequila's amazing abilities outside of the glass. Many spirits are useful for activities beyond sipping (vodka, for example, is a great stain and odor remover), but tequila holds some particularly magical powers. Here are just a few of them.

1. SYNTHETIC BAUBLE

In 2008, a team of scientists in Mexico discovered that when the heated vapor from an 80-proof tequila blanco was combined with a silicon or stainless steel substrate, it resulted in the formation of diamond films. These films can be used in commercial applications, such as electrical insulators, or to create one big fake diamond. Who knew that spending $50 on a bottle of Don Julio was such a wise investment?

2. ALTERNATIVE ENERGY SOURCE

Keeping with the science theme: In 2011, researchers at England’s University of Oxford suggested that we may one day be gassing up our cars with tequila. They identified agave, the plant from which tequila is produced, as a potential biofuel source—and a particularly attractive one, as the plant itself is not consumed by humans and can thrive in desert climates.

3. WEIGHT LOSS SUPPLEMENT

Scientists have long promoted the potential benefits of the agave plant for its ability to help dissolve fats and lower cholesterol. The bad news? These properties get a bit diluted when the plant is distilled into alcohol. Even more so when it's whipped into a sugary margarita.

4. SLEEP AID

Take three or more shots of tequila and you’re bound to pass out. A single shot can have the same effect—just not in that drunken stupor kind of way. Relaxation is one of the positive side effects of tequila drinking; a small amount (1 to 1.5 ounces) before bedtime can reportedly help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly.

5. COLON CLEANSER

Too much of a good thing may not bring a welcome turn of events for your liver … but your colon will thank you! Researchers at Mexico’s University of Guadalajara have identified the blue agave as a potentially helpful source for delivering drugs to the colon in order to treat colitis, IBS, Crohn’s disease and even cancer.

6. DIABETES PREVENTATIVE

If Ernest Hemingway had known about the healing properties of tequila, his signature drink might have been a margarita instead of a daiquiri. In 2010, experiments conducted at Mexico’s Polytechnic Institute of Guanajuato revealed that the agave plant (which is high in fructans, a fructose polymer) could stimulate the GLP-1 hormone, aiding in increased insulin production.

7. COLD REMEDY

“Plenty of liquids” is a well-known remedy for getting oneself out from under the weather. But expanding that definition to include a kicked-up shot of tequila makes a day laid out on the couch sound much more appealing. In the 1930s, doctors in Mexico recommended the following concoction to fight off a cold.

.5 ounce of tequila blanco
.5 ounce of agave nectar (to eliminate bacteria and soothe sore throats)
.5 ounce of fresh lime juice (for Vitamin C)

Though some people (including tequila companies) swear by its healing powers, others say it's hogwash.

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16 Geeky Coasters to Keep Your Coffee Table Safe
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Avoid unsightly ring stains on your coffee table with this delightful selection of coasters:

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

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This set comes with 10 coasters, each with a slice of brain specimen. When you’re not using them, you can stack them together to create a full brain.

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These coasters feature scenes from the classics My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl's Moving Castle.

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