Outrunning the past isn’t easy. Oh sure, you think it is at first. You’re born and before you know it your potty training days are over. You start reading and adding numbers together. Even at such a young age the things you enjoyed a year previously seem infantile.
You move through the education system so quickly schools flicker past as if in the world has been sped up. You start dating and your first crush leads to your first heartbreak, but you get back up and dust yourself off and soon you’ll forget his or her face because he or she won’t matter.
You move on.
You go to college, learn the perils of alcohol, experiment with sex and drugs and what happens if you forget to clean the dishes for months at a time. Fledging, you strike out on your own. Maybe you don’t make your first flight but you try and try again until you do. You leave home permanently, find a new life in the big city, fall in love and settle down and there you are: an oak wondering how it could ever have been an acorn.
But the past is always there, the tortoise to your hare, and when it catches you unawares it pulls your screaming back to the past.
Ladies and gentlemen I present to you: the office Christmas party.
If there’s a more surefire way of reducing you and your colleagues to a band of misfit children, I haven’t run afoul of it. Dragging attendees several decades into the past, Christmas parties make you pass through every stage in your life in reverse, stripping away the comfort of marriage, your post collegial inhibitions, the niceties of mature social interaction and leaving you on the toilet floor dripping liquids from both ends while wailing for your mum.
Christmas parties are primitive hedonism transposed to the modern age. Instead of stag antlers participants wear party hats, yet make the same sounds as rutting deer while they chase giggling wobbly women through the cubicles. Corner one while wearing sherry goggles and you might wonder who deposited Raquel Welsh circa One Million Years B.C. in the offices of Bartnum & Son estate agents. Sober up the following morning–head pealing like thunder–and stuck to your armpit with Baileys and lipstick is Maureen Krum, firm secretary, who’s trapped in a loveless marriage and whom you recall spent the best part of the night nibbling at your cock like a gibbon savouring a peanut. Last night you thought she had a heady musk of pure, unadulterated sex. This morning she smells like cat’s breath.
The year’s finances are smeared with semen and green jelly. The photocopier looks like a bottom flew headlong into it–probably because one did. Terry, Bartnum & Son’s number one salesperson, is trying to remove the tie he stapled to his scrotum. From everywhere comes the mournful sobbing of alcoholic regret, often accompanied by mumbled apology where someone fell genitals first upon someone who wasn’t their other half. The party was so intense that half the office forgot to stagger home, instead sleeping in filing cabinets using mortgage contracts as duvets. A message comes in on the office voicemail: Barry from two cubes over took a taxi to John O’Groats and lost his trousers on the journey.
We’re supposed to be responsible adults, but give us access to cheap booze and paper hats and we revert to kindergartners finger-painting with Marie-Rose sauce. If you were lucky enough to miss your work do this past weekend be thankful you didn’t have to hear your workmates belting out Slade while drinking vodka and copy toner.
Where does this behaviour stem from? I have my suspicions.
My primary school Christmas parties, though a little less debauched, obviously catered to the next generation of lushes, hedonists and marital cheats.
They started innocently enough. For weeks beforehand every child’s mother worked hard what she hoped would be her crowning glory: a hat for the Christmas hat competition. So long as they were Christmassy the hats were encouraged to be as gaudy and as glorious as possible. Strictly speaking they were supposed to be made by the children themselves, but with a prize on offer (probably a tin of Quality Street) even the most creatively bankrupt parent worked herself silly to make sure her child was belle or beau of the ball.
The hat competition was the angel on the top of the tree. Chaste and filled with seasonal spirit, the worst thing to corrupt it was the possibility that you might lose to someone with a vastly inferior hat, who’d clearly been bribing the judges. On the two occasions I went to the party I was terribly bitter that someone else’s hat was chosen over mine. If hat contests were Hollywood I would have accused the winners of spending time on the casting couch with their ankles behind their ears.
I only went to the school Christmas party twice. The other two years I feigned sickness–or made myself sick–to avoid getting out of it. It was the girls, the stinking rotten girls. I was one of those stubborn little boys who insisted that girls were from Venus, and should therefore be shot with laser pistols until dead. For most of the year my class was naturally segregated by gender; the girls did their thing, the boys (and the class tomboy) did their thing never the twain did meet.
On Christmas the rules by which we all abode were thrown out the window. Beneath the paper chains and crepe paper twists, in the school gymnasium-cum-dining hall, boys and girls were paired up for what our teachers laughably called ‘fun and games’.
Looking back it’s clear the teachers thought forcing girls and boys upon one another was cute. They were wedding photographers, urging young attendees in smart shirts and party dresses to do the hokey-cokey together. They probably thought it was adorable.
They were wrong.
I don’t know what the hell kind of school makes the pupils kiss one another but that’s the kind of school I went to. Playing musical statues was fine–I never had to touch my partner and she never had to touch me. We could get our groove on independently and dance with as minimal movement as possible so as to not still be swaying when Mr. Hill cut Kylie Mionogue off mid Locomotion.
Pass the parcel was also fine, so long as you ignore the usual childish scuffle whereby one kid holds onto the parcel for as long as possible, and continues to hold on even after the next in line’s taken hold of it.
Musical chairs was where things became tricky. Rather than set up a series of seats and then remove them one by one over the course of the game, our teachers demanded the chairs be occupied by the boys. As the girls ran around squabbling over where to sit when the music stopped, we sat in dread of whose posterior might end up on our lap.
Personally, I didn’t want any girl to sit on my lap. Some of the other boys were a little more pro-active in their dislike of the game, and stuck out feet to trip unsuspecting girls, adding impromptu hurdles to an already hazardous course. Others, claiming to be more suave and mature than the rest of us, thrust their crotches out when sat upon by girls they liked.
The most dreadful game of the party was Knights & Cavaliers, a game created by the teachers that would have been more apt for a secondary school make-out party. In Knights & Cavaliers music played and the couples danced together. When certain commands were called the children reacted accordingly: when a teacher called ‘knights’, the boy picked up the girl and when he or she called ‘cavaliers’ they kissed.
Those were the rules.
With this in mind the selection process for tended to be a prolonged and difficult one. Nobody wanted to end up with a partner he or she detested and nobody wanted to be left until last, untouchable according to the rest of the school. As the pool of available partners dwindled so choosing became more difficult. It was important not to seem too eager in choosing a partner just in case the other kids accused you of ‘going out’ together, but choose you must, otherwise you ended with the flea-scratching bed-wetting dregs of the selection.
Of my two Christmas parties I can only remember one of my choices, Caroline Hounsel, whom I had an awkward roundabout crush on that I couldn’t articulate even to myself. Even then I didn’t want to kiss her for fear of catching girl germs; neither did she want to be kissed, and when ‘cavaliers’ was called she extended her hand primly before wiping my spit from the back of her hand on her party frock.
Incredibly, when ‘knights’ was called things became even worse. I didn’t have a clue how to sweep a girl up in my arms so I lifted her with my arms around her waist, half-choking her in the process. Despite this we survived through round after round while all about us couples fell apart under the pressure of being made to snog every three minutes.
Finally we, too fell apart. Tired of being ridiculed by boys more suited to picking up their partners against poor Caroline’s will I tried hoisting her up by one of her legs, knocking her over in the process. We were disqualified, my crush was disgusted, and I’d had enough of Christmas parties to last a lifetime.
It wasn’t as if the party food was worth persevering for. After that morning’s hijinks food was laid on trestle tables, the usual ‘80s kiddie fare of cheese and pineapple, jelly and ice cream, and sundry other foods which, while perfectly acceptable on their own, transmogrify into something starkly terrifying when eaten together.
The only thing that made Christmas parties worthwhile was a visit to Father Christmas’s grotto on the first floor, and even that was just gym equipment decorated with fairy lights and camouflage netting, beneath which Mr. Treloar wearing a false beard would hand out twenty pence worth of toys to each and every child.
After my first school Christmas party not even the promise of a rubber monster pencil topper could persuade me to return the next year. One year I actually made it into school before throwing up in the toilets and being sent home. I was so wracked with fear at the impending party it made me sick.
Though not, perhaps, as sick as the adults organising these games.
My confession hidden at the end of this post is that I’ve avoided all Christmas parties since. I’ve never been to an office Christmas party and I never want to. The thought of encountering any of the Lord of the Flies nonsense I wrote at the start of this post is enough to send my stomach churning and make me want to go back home before I’ve set a foot outside.
I’m not averse to all parties–some might even be pleasant–but after losing hat competitions, eating jelly and ice cream mush and being made to–ick!–kiss a girl, as far as I’m concerned you can take your Christmas frolics and jam them right up your ho-ho-hole.