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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84 Years Ago Today: Goodbye Prohibition!
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
Keystone/Getty Images

It was 84 years ago today that the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, repealing the earlier Amendment that declared the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol illegal in the United States. Prohibition was over! Booze that had been illegal for 13 years was suddenly legal again, and our long national nightmare was finally over.

A giant barrel of beer, part of a demonstration against prohibition in America.
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Prohibition of alcohol was not a popular doctrine. It turned formerly law-abiding citizens into criminals. It overwhelmed police with enforcement duties and gave rise to organized crime. In cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis, the dismantling of breweries left thousands of people unemployed.

Photograph courtesy of the Boston Public Library

Homemade alcohol was often dangerous and some people died from drinking it. Some turned to Sterno or industrial alcohol, which was dangerous and sometimes poisoned by the government to discourage drinking. State and federal governments were spending a lot of money on enforcement, while missing out on taxes from alcohol.

New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach (right) watches agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of Prohibition.

The midterm elections of 1930 saw the majority in Congress switch from Republican to Democratic, signaling a shift in public opinion about Prohibition as well as concerns about the depressed economy. Franklin Roosevelt, who urged repeal, was elected president in 1932. The Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution was proposed by Congress in February of 1933, the sole purpose of which was to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment establishing Prohibition.

American men guarding their private beer brewing hide-out, during Prohibition.
Keystone/Getty Images

With passage of the Constitutional Amendment to repeal Prohibition a foregone conclusion, a huge number of businessmen lined up at the Board of Health offices in New York in April of 1933 to apply for liquor licenses to be issued as soon as the repeal was ratified.

The Amendment was ratified by the states by the mechanism of special state ratifying conventions instead of state legislatures. Many states ratified the repeal as soon as conventions could be organized. The ratifications by the required two-thirds of the states was achieved on December 5, 1933, when conventions in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah agreed to repeal Prohibition through the Amendment.

Workmen unloading crates of beer stacked at a New York brewery shortly after the repeal of Prohibition.
Keystone/Getty Images

A brewery warehouse in New York stacked crates past the ceiling to satisfy a thirsty nation after the repeal of Prohibition.

Keystone/Getty Images

Liquor wouldn't officially be legal until December 15th, but Americans celebrated openly anyway, and in most places, law enforcement officials let them.

Courtesy New District
Say ‘Cheers’ to the Holidays With This 24-Bottle Wine Advent Calendar
Courtesy New District
Courtesy New District

This year, eschew your one-tiny-chocolate-a-day Advent calendar and count down to Christmas the boozy way. An article on the Georgia Straight tipped us off to New District’s annual wine Advent calendars, featuring 24 full-size bottles.

Each bottle of red, white, or sparkling wine is hand-picked by the company’s wine director, with selections from nine different countries. Should you be super picky, you can even order yourself a custom calendar, though that will likely add to the already-high price point. The basic 24-bottle order costs $999 (in Canadian dollars), and if you want to upgrade from cardboard boxes to pine, that will run you $100 more.

If you can’t quite handle 24 bottles (or $999), the company is introducing a 12-bottle version this year, too. For $500, you get 12 reds, whites, rosés, and sparkling wines from various unnamed “elite wine regions.”

With both products, each bottle is numbered, so you know exactly what you should be drinking every day if you really want to be a stickler for the Advent schedule. Whether you opt for 12 or 24 bottles, the price works out to about $42 per bottle, which is somewhere in between the “I buy all my wines based on what’s on sale at Trader Joe’s” level and “I am a master sommelier” status.

If you want to drink yourself through the holiday season, act now. To make sure you receive your shipment before December 1, you’ll need to order by November 20. Get it here.

[h/t the Georgia Straight]


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