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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Is There Any Point in Letting Red Wine Breathe?
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by Aliya Whiteley

At the end of a long day, few things beat simple pleasures like watching a good film, eating a bar of chocolate the size of your head, or drinking a big glass of red wine.

By this point in the evening, most people don’t want to be told that they need to uncork the bottle and let the wine sit for at least 30 minutes before it becomes pleasantly drinkable. Yet that's (by the letter of the unwritten law) what you're supposed to do.

But why? Well, let's start with the assorted historical reasons.

Red wine has been around since the Stone Age. In fact, in 2011 a cave was uncovered in Armenia where the remains of a wine press, drinking and fermentation vessels, and withered grape vines were uncovered; the remains were dated at 5500 years old. Early winemaking often had a ritualistic aspect: Wine jars were found in Ancient Egyptian tombs, and wine appears in both the Hebrew and Christian bibles.

The concept of letting wine "breathe" is, historically speaking, relatively new and probably has its roots in the way wine was once bottled and stored.

Traditionally, sulfur is added to wine in order to preserve it for longer, and if too much is added the wine might well have an ... interesting aroma when first opened—the kind of "interesting aroma" that bears more than a passing resemblance to rotten eggs. Contact with the air may have helped to remove the smell, so decanting wine may once have been a way of removing unwelcome odors, as well as getting rid of the sediment that built up in the bottom of bottles.

It’s also possible that the concept springs from the early 1860s, when Emperor Napoleon III asked Louis Pasteur to investigate why so much French wine was spoiling in transit. Pasteur published his results, which concluded that wine coming into contact with air led to the growth of bacteria, thus ruining the vino. However, small amounts of air improved the flavor of the wine by "aging" it. In bottles, with a cork stopper, the wine still came into contact with a small amount of oxygen, and by storing it for years the wine was thought to develop a deeper flavor.

However, how much of that actually matters today?

Many experts agree that there is no point in simply pulling out the cork and letting the wine sit in an open bottle for any period of time; the wine won’t come into enough contact with oxygen to make any difference to the taste.

However, decanting wine might still be a useful activity. The truth is this: It entirely depends on the wine.

Nowadays we don’t really age wine anymore; we make it with the aim of drinking it quickly, within a year or so. But some types of wine that are rich in tannins (compounds that come from the grape skins and seeds) can benefit from a period of time in a decanter, to soften the astringent taste. These include wines from Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley, for instance.

If you really want to know if a particular wine would benefit from being given time to breathe, try your own experiment at home. Buy two bottles, decant one, and let it breathe for an hour. Do you notice a difference in the taste? Even if you don’t, it's an experiment that justifies opening two bottles of wine.

One word of warning: No matter where a wine comes from, it is possible to overexpose it to oxygen. So remember Pasteur’s experiments and don’t leave your wine out of the bottle for days. That, friends, would be one hell of a waste.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

A Beer From the Middle Ages Is Making a Serious Comeback

Hop-forward beer is all the rage today, but in the middle ages many imbibers preferred brews that skewed towards the sweeter side. Now, centuries after it fell out of fashion, Atlas Obscura reports that gruit ale is making a comeback.

Gruit beer is any beer that features botanicals in place of hops. The ingredients that give the drink its distinctive sweet, aromatic taste can be as familiar as ginger and lavender or as exotic as mugwort and seabuckthorn. The herbs play the role of hops by both adding complex flavors and creating an inhospitable environment for harmful microbes.

It may be hard for modern beer lovers to imagine beer without hops, but prior to the 16th century gruit was as common in parts of Europe as IPAs are in hip American cities today. Then, in 1516, that style of beer suddenly vanished from pint glasses: That was the year Germany passed a beer purity law that restricted beer formulas to hops, water, and barley. Many of the key botanicals in gruit beer were considered aphrodisiacs at the time, and the rising Puritan movement helped push the brew further into obscurity.

Hops have dominated the beer scene ever since, and only in the past few decades have microbrewers started giving old gruit recipes the attention they're due. In 2017, the Scratch Brewing Company in Illinois released their seasonal Scratch Tonic, made from a combination of dandelion, carrot tops, clover, and ginger. The Põhjala Brewery in Estonia brews their Laugas beer using Estonian herbs, caraway, and juniper berries. Get in touch with your local microbrewery to see if they have their own version of the old-school beer in their line-up.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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