A note from Callmemiss: This post, in a slightly abbreviated form, was originally a listener essay read during Morning Edition, WFCR-FM, December 24, 2004.
On Saturday, two days after Thanksgiving, one day after Black Friday and two days before Cyber Monday, I heard a Christmas carol on the car radio. Since I had spent the day on the hunt for early-bird specials and door-busting values, I was already aware that ’twas now the season.
I did not need the reminder: my thinning wallet and thickening stack of receipts were a dead giveaway. But those first cheery notes harmonized with my inner alarm bells, ringing full blast with their annual warning: Get ready! Paste on a smile! Practice looking like you care! Office holiday party ahead!
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am as sociable as the next person. And I genuinely like my colleagues. Most of them, anyway. It is the annual workplace ritual of gift exchange that starts me contemplating if not hibernation then at least early retirement.
These rituals start off innocently enough. Tins of cookies or fudge appear in the copy room, seemingly free for the taking. When complimented, the stealth baker will modestly reply: “it was nothing. I made them for my kids’ teachers. These are the leftovers.” Inevitably, the hint, along with the last gingerbread man, is swallowed whole by some rookie in the relentless game of holiday merry-making. “I have a great idea,” he’ll say, “let’s bring in some little something for each other.
Plans for an office party then begin in earnest: lists are compiled, assignments are doled out, and names drawn for a “secret Santa” gift exchange. Then come the decorations: a plastic wreath here, a blow-up vinyl Rudolph there and cunning elves capering across the secretary’s desks. One year, we even had monogrammed stockings tacked to our doors, and our office was the envy of the campus. All in preparation for an afternoon orgy of high-calorie snacks and grab-bag presents.
My experience with office holiday parties and gift exchanges spans a quarter century, and I have been the bemused grabbee of gifts that range from soap-on-a-rope so old it’s wrapped in yellowed cellophane, which, along with the surfactant inside, crumbled to a fine power …to a battery operated mechanical dog that barks “Jingle Bell Rock” while shaking its booty.
Yes, yes. I know it is the thought that counts. My thought is that the only real way to survive the office holiday gift exchange is to adhere devoutly to a single, simple rule: gifts for the office must not only be cheap, they must look cheap. Nothing cuts through the faux holiday cheer and says, “forget the bonhomie, give me a cash bonus” like a hastily selected, carelessly wrapped gew-gaw–preferably purchased at the dollar store. At the very least it must have “Made in China” stamped on the bottom, or, if it is a comestible, be rapidly approaching if not past its sell-by date. If you buy something on clearance, make certain that a tell-tale portion of the red or yellow “reduced” tag is clearly visible. Better yet, recycle that little something under last year’s tree–the gimcrack you shoved in the junk drawer on Boxing Day. Best of all: re-gift what you pulled out of a prior grab. This is not only the apotheosis of apathy, if challenged you can simply look smug and declare you are celebrating a “green Christmas.” What with that global warming and all, you are seeking out every opportunity to conserve!
Colleagues of mine, and perhaps you will join them in this view, have accused me of being petty and mean-spirited. Actually, I am not. My office-party survival rule does have one important exception: it applies only to the gifts you give, not the ones you receive.