This Christmas — okay “holiday season” — will be the first time in my professional career that I will not attend an office/company party. Well, in retrospect, I could throw myself a party, which is a pretty good idea after all.
No buffet lines. No sitting next to someone I don’t like or doesn’t like me. No disappointment at the paltry year-end bonus. No less-than-inspiring speech from the boss.
Let’s face it: Many holiday parties (or at least many I’ve attended) were long on food and drink, but short on spirit, giving, fellowship and camaraderie. You know, the “real” reasons behind Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
Reflecting back to a simpler time in my life, there was one holiday party that stands out. Not for lavish food and drink at a tony restaurant or spectacular entertainment. This party had food, drink and entertainment; but it also had spirit, giving, fellowship and camaraderie.
Here’s the situation. In the mid 1990s, I worked as the marketing and public relations guy for a re-manufacturer of office furniture here in Chicago. It was an interesting concept: Take used systems furniture (the components of an office cubicle) and give the stuff a second lease on life through new paint and fabric. I did it all, from media relations to direct mail. Even sold a few file cabinets and systems.
The company was based in a rambling old brick factory building just south of downtown. Around 90 people worked there: the office staff — sales reps and administration, and the factory staff — the installers, painters and upholsterers. This was primarily a blue-collar bunch, especially the factory staff, which was mainly Black and Hispanic.
The company ran on thin margins, and there was little in the budget for extravagances like a holiday party. But I had a secret fund that let us hold a party that year, one that I believe really did make things a little better for the staff.
My holiday fund was built not on cash, but on barter scrip. Through our affiliation with a reciprocal trade association (better known as a barter exchange) we traded furniture for scrip and built an account. I used it to get us a banquet room at a moderate, casual restaurant west of the factory. They provided decent food and drink, and a DJ — also secured with “barter bucks” — provided the entertainment.
For a few hours that December evening, the staff ate, drank, laughed and danced, engulfed in as true a holiday spirit as I’ve experienced. Inhibitions were broken down. These people didn’t “mingle,” they engaged each other, more so than at any office party I attended before or since. There was honest, unbridled joy in the room. True laughter. Even the crotchety boss looked like he had a good time.
Many of my co-workers at this company didn’t expect much more than a job. Hopefully that Christmas, they got a little something besides a paycheck. Hopefully, they came away feeling as fulfilled as I did.