What Makes the Best Office Christmas Party?

It’s the time of year when businesses across the country start having their annual Christmas party (or nondenominational holiday party). These can be fun or boring, awesome or lame, wild or mild, depending on several things. Those things include time, location, gift expectations, guest status, duration, and food selection and alcohol selection.

I’ve been to a handful of work Christmas parties, and the enjoyment has varied depending on each of those things. So with that in mind, let’s discuss the optimal selections for each category. The biggest caveat with this whole list, by the way, is how bosses participate. If the boss(es) show up, are relaxed, don’t care about how people drink, covers the tab, then leaves before things really ramp up, that’s the best possible outcome. But if your boss is overbearing or tries to insert themselves into the social balance too much, things can take a dive. But assuming you have a boss that knows how to have a good time without making people uncomfortable, these are your best options for a great office Christmas party:

Time

Worst Time: Lunch
Best Time: Late Afternoon

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Timing is important in so, so many facets of life, and that includes extracurricular work functions. Lunch is the worst time unless everyone is allowed to leave right after the party. But even then lunch suffers because if there are drinks being served, you’re going to have a tough decision to make: Do you keep drinking, knowing you’ll end up hammered by 6:00 and hungover by bedtime, or do you relax a bit, get some electrolytes in you, and continue at a modest pace later on? There’s just too much that can go wrong.

Similarly, after working hours into the evening has its pitfalls. If you’re anything like me you don’t want to leave work, go home, kill about 45 minutes, then turn around and drive to some place where you’ll meet the exact same people you just spent all day with. Some folks will have changed clothes, others will still be in work stuff. Some will have brought families if that’s allowed, some will not have been able to. And then by the time things are finished, it’s time to go home and go straight to bed, especially if the party is during the week.

But late afternoon solves both of these problems. My favorite Christmas party start time is 4:00. That’s enough time to get to wherever the part is being held (if it’s away from the office) before it gets too crowded, and you’ll be able to hang out for a few hours and still be home in time for dinner. You don’t have to worry about changing clothes or going out of your way to do anything crazy. Essentially you’re getting out of work a bit early but also staying a bit late but it doesn’t matter because you’re drinking and avoiding rush hour traffic.

Location

Worst Location: Restaurant At Least a 15-Minute Drive From the Office
Best Location: Private Room Within Walking Distance of the Offic

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This will vary a bit from city to city, but wherever you are, location is important. I used to work in a skyscraper in downtown Dallas and it was easy to find great places within walking distance of our building. In fact, some fraction of the fun of the Christmas party was leaving at the same time as a few other people and walking back to the parking garage together. It’s nice because you don’t have to worry about moving your car or finding parking or anything like that.

Anywhere that requires more than fifteen minutes of drive time should be immediately removed from consideration. People don’t want to work all day, spend 15 minutes probably going in the wrong direction of their home, find parking, go to a party, then have to Waze their way home because they’re in some unfamiliar area. It’s just not fun. That lack of fun is compounded if the party isn’t even in a private room. I went to a Christmas party that was just in the main dining room of a restaurant once and it sucked because it was loud and by the time we were exchanging gifts it just felt like we were the ones responsible for the 45-minute wait time for a table.

Of course, another option is to have the party at your office. I like this option, too, provided that there are a few good spots for it. You’ll need a good conference room, breakroom, kitchen, and maybe a reception area that’s comfortable. If you don’t have that kind of room, people end up congregating in individual offices and that kills the whole party vibe. The other downside to this option is typically the drink selection won’t be as robust, but you shouldn’t be getting hammered at a work event anyway, so that’s not that big a deal.

Gift Expectations

Worst Gift Expectation: Everyone Gets Something for Everyone
Best Gift Expectation: Secret Santa

I want to begin by saying I’ve never personally worked in an office that had a party where everyone got a gift for everyone else. Well, let me amend that. I did work at a place that did that once, but the one Christmas I spent there was postponed because someone had some medical issues so I never had to suffer that way. That whole office sucked from the top down. But I digress. Even if you work in a small office, you shouldn’t have to get something for everyone. At that point the price limit is going to be like $5 and there’s very little worth spending $5 on in the world of Christmas gifts.

Secret Santa is where it’s at. Everyone draws a name, a price limit is set (almost everywhere I’ve worked has set the limit at $25, which I think is fair), and then everyone exchanges gifts like that. Some places add a theme, which can be cool. You’re not breaking the bank, you might get to interact with someone you don’t normally interact with, and even if you end up with a terrible gift you will at least have a story. In college I was in a Secret Santa at the on-campus restaurant where I worked and a coworker who I had never said more than five words to drew my name and got me a disgusting brown flannel jacket that was two sizes too big (I wore an XL at the time and she got me an XXXL, which made me feel really great about myself). Terrible gift, but a fun story.

Of course, some places have a White Elephant gift exchange. (also called Dirty Santa, Nasty Santa (which sounds a little too sexual for my liking), or, as The Office made famous, Yankee Swap). The rules vary a bit, but the idea is that everyone brings a gift and everyone receives a gift, but you can force others to trade with you under certain circumstances. It’s normally pretty lame, but it’s better than having to buy a gift for everyone.

Guest Status

Worst Guest Status: All Guests Welcome
Best Guest Status: Significant Others Only

Office Christmas party

Look, I don’t want a bunch of kids at an office Christmas party. I like kids, I have no problem with kids, and it’s not like I plan on swearing and nudity being components of the Christmas party. But an office Christmas party is a place for adults who normally only see each other in work mode to kick back a bit in adult ways: drinking and leaving work early. Christmas means different things to kids than it does to adults, and the childlike wonder of Christmas doesn’t really belong at an office Christmas party. Similarly, if you allow people to start bringing extended family or random friends, then it’s not really an office party anymore and at that point you might be picking up your own tab, and that’s a bummer without a doubt.

Some people will have a hybrid party where it’s office-only for the first couple hours then family welcome after that. That’s a decent compromise, provided no one feels pressured to bring a bunch of family in or feels pressured to stay just because they don’t want others getting offended for whatever reason.

Optimally it would be significant others only. Husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, or whatever. That’s nice because meeting your coworkers’ spouses is always a bit of a trip because it gives you a peak into their life at home. And sometimes it yields something awesome like your otherwise straight-laced coworker having a fun, extroverted, partying spouse and then the straight-laced one let’s their hair down—or crooks their laces, as it were. It also helps your significant other put faces to names. “You see her in the striped cardigan? That’s Susan, the one I’m always saying has stank breath and eavesdrops.” Or “Hey, there’s Jason! He’s the best!” Now when you and your significant other swap work stories you’ll be able to picture the events a little clearer.

Duration

Worst Duration: Less Than 90 Minutes or More Than 3 Hours
Best Duration: 90 Minutes to 3 Hours

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The Christmas party should never just be a longer-than-average meal. Thankfully you don’t see this too often unless it’s a lunch party, which is the least optimal time for a party anyway. Of course, you also don’t want it to be some long, drawn out thing, either. If I see the Christmas party email and it says 4:00–8:00, there’s no way I’m going to be there for the whole thing. I’m either making up a reason to show up late or making up a reason to leave early. With one exception, I have liked my coworkers at every job I’ve ever had, but I still don’t want to spend four hours after work with all of them.

That’s where there’s that sweet spot of 1.5–3 hours. That’s enough time to have a few drinks and east some good food, say hello to everyone, participate in the gift exchange, crack a few jokes, and make your exit. Personally I think almost all social functions should be limited to that timeframe, but no one asked me, so there we are.

This, of course, will depend on the location, alcohol selection, and, as always, the bosses’ demeanors. There’s nothing worse than a party where you are ready to leave about 45 minutes in. So I suppose this category needs that caveat: The best scheduled time for a party is 90 minutes to 3 hours. If the party sucks, then of course leaving earlier is optimal.

Food and Alcohol Selection

Worst Food Selection: Pot Luck
Best Food Selection: Finger foods

Worst Alcohol Selection: None
Best Alcohol Selection: Full Bar

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I feel like the alcohol stuff is pretty self-explanatory. If there is no alcohol, I’m not going to be there too long. If I’m staying after hours, taking time away from my family and my free time to spend unpaid time with coworkers, I better be able to have a drink. Full bar is optimal, beer and wine is a good choice, just beer or just wine isn’t awful, but having none is the worst. And for that matter, only having one type of beer or wine or spirits and nothing else is pretty bad, too. If the only drink available is Bud Light then I’m faking an emergency and leaving.

With food, you don’t want potluck for a couple reasons. For one thing, you don’t know how good of a cook anyone really is. I’m a pretty decent cook, but I’ve met people who had a lot more confidence than I do who were not nearly the cooks I am. Example: I went to a class Christmas party in college and there was this one girl who went on and on and on about how good her homemade eggrolls were. She brought them, and they tasted like someone boiled frozen chicken nuggets in a vat of broth made from a marathon runner’s dirty socks. And the eggrolls themselves had been oven baked instead of fried so they weren’t even a little crispy. Disgusting.

For another thing, you don’t want people to have to bring in food that will sit all day and need to be warmed up at the party. The food will be cold or not taste as good as it should, then that person has to make sure they get their cookware, and if the food isn’t good then they’ll have a bunch leftover and their feelings will be hurt…I mean, it’s just the worst option.

But you also don’t want a sit-down meal with appetizers, entrees, and desserts. That’s too restrictive and doesn’t allow the camaraderie of walking around. Finger foods are the answer. Hors d’oeuvres, tapas, pizza…something that can be eaten with your hands. My favorite things for Christmas parties are sausage balls, spanakopita, spring rolls, pizza, taquitos, and mini-quiche. Sometimes there might be something fun like a crostini with fresh apples and brie or maybe warm pinwheels. As for sweets, it’s easy to do cheesecake bites or cake balls or truffles or cookies or baklava or whatever. It’s just easy. Perfect for eating while holding a drink, perfect for holding while talking, and easy to eat and not eat what you want without offending anyone.

With all of that in mind, I hope you all have safe, fun holiday parties this season, and be sure to not drink too much. Seriously. Nothing will make you fall from grace in the eyes of your bosses quicker than making a drunken scene at an office Christmas party. Plus, if you work in an area that doesn’t have Uber or taxis or public transportation, you don’t want to put yourself in a position where you could be driving home intoxicated. Be safe, and merry Christmas and happy holidays!

1 thought on “What Makes the Best Office Christmas Party?”

  1. Pingback: A Guide to Office Holiday Gifts - CosasTotum.com

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