Successful Office Holiday Traditions


I’ve worked in a few different offices, each with their own holiday traditions. Sometimes these traditions create beloved holiday memories; other times, office festivities can feel forced and stifling. Is there a key to success?

Make it Optional

There’s nothing worse than forced merriment. At my first job out of college, the office hosted an annual cookie swap. Each person made a few dozen cookies and, at the end of the day, we laid out our provisions and gathered a sampling of everyone’s treats. I would then hop on the train from Washington, D.C., to Connecticut and arrive home with a full panoply of Christmas cookies. My younger brother learned to eagerly await the cookie train’s arrival.

The cookie swap worked because it was not a required event. I am a terrible cook, and if any job demanded that I cook something each year, I might have had a break down. Knowing that I could opt out, however, eased my cooking anxiety. If my cookies burned or looked like mounds of glue, I could toss them and just take a year off. And, I had all year to search for easy “no-cook” cookie recipes. In fact, my whole family got into the game: my mom would clip recipes and send them my way whenever she saw one she figured I could not ruin.

Along the “make it optional” line, it is also nice to schedule the event during office hours.Now there’s nothing wrong with an annual office holiday party in the evening. But if you’re hosting a cookie swap or a gift exchange (something simple) there is no need to demand after hours participation. Nothing sucks fun out of a party more quickly than the simple fact that everyone present would rather be somewhere else.

Participation fosters authenticity

The most successful office holiday traditions involve everyone. Whether it’s a white elephant gift exchange, a cookie swap, or a potluck, the personal contributions lend authenticity to what could otherwise feel like Big Brother’s required holiday fete.

Home from college one holiday (and desperate for money), I temped at a major corporation’s headquarters for a month. They generously invited me to their holiday party which consisted of punch, a tray of cookies, and office staff milling around awkwardly while a band played on. It was without a doubt the worst holiday party that I have ever attended. Afterwards, I tried to pinpoint why exactly the event felt so lame. Surely the punch and the lone cookie tray didn’t help. If office funds were tight, a potluck would have felt more festive. But the real problem was that the event lacked authenticity. Clearly the higher ups didn’t want a real party—no one could have thought that punch and those cookies would result in actual merriment. And, the staff did not want to be there either. Who wants to be at a lame event? It would have been more generous to let people go home an hour early. An event requiring some participation encourages conversation (“what’s the recipe for the dip?”) and provides more fun potential.

This past year, our office voted to forego our annual gift exchange and adopt a family in need through a local organization. We purchased presents for our adopted family and wrapped the presents all together before delivering the gifts. I was relieved to skip the gift exchange (who needs another fifteen dollar tchotchke?) and happy to sign on to something a tad more useful. And, personally participating in gift selection was fun. I hope this one becomes an annual event.

The bottom line? There’s real potential for office holiday events to create meaningful holiday memories. These are the people that we spend our days with—it’s worth taking a moment to enjoy one another’s company a few times a year. But a lame holiday event is worse than no event at all.

(photo: Portrait of smart colleagues from Shutterstock)

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