Why are Christmas Parties So Controversial?

Former Downing Street Press Secretary
Allegra Stratton laughing about a Christmas party she may have attended during the 2020 lock down.

Professor Joe Goldblatt

“Joe, have you seen the front page of The Washington Post this morning?” This is the kind of question that when issued during breakfast could cause instant indigestion. As my wife pointed to an article about the new academic programme I had created at The George Washington University where the course had been described by the cheeky journalist as ‘party planning’, I actually smiled with pride because at long last, the discipline of events management had earned the respect of a mainstream U.S.A. newspaper.

A few minutes letter my phone rang and it was my supervisor calling to announce in a conspiratorial voice that the Dean of our business school was not amused and in fact outraged to learn that one of his academic programmes had been described as something seemingly so trite as party planning. The Dean had previously served as chief executive of a major accountancy firm and was very conservative by nature. My supervisor was just the opposite and he was immediately plotting how to spin this story into something positive to insure the future of our academic programme.

My supervisor lowered his voice and almost in a Watergate like “Deep Throat” whisper he said “The definition of party may also be used to describe a political organisation such as the Democrats and Republicans and therefore we must be prepared to answer any further questions by aligning this field of study with politics.” I listened to this seemingly incrongruous analysis and then asked in disgust, “What is so wrong with party planning?”

The answer to my question may have historical roots where ancient monarchs first appointed court officials to plan their fetes in order to better control the nature of personal and public celebrations. The American comedian Red Skelton once asked me rehtorically. “Do you know why there are so few well known comedians?” Before I could answer he grinned and said “Because we are dangerous. We upset and threaten Kings. Therefore, the fewer the number of comedians, the easier it is for people in power to control us!”

The most recent controversy at Number Ten Downing Street is one further example of how a moment of liminality may cause severe personal damage to public officials and their public policies. Whilst it is natural and normal for all human societies to celebrate, as defined by the Scottish anthropologist Victor Turner, our “joys, hopes, and sorrows” there is also an element of danger when conducting such events.

The danger that is intrinsic in the planning and delivery of parties is also part of what leads to their excitement and enthusiasm. When one accepts an invitation to an event hosted by others they agree to some extent to surrender control to someone else who has designed an experience in which they will willingly participate. This experience may result in a positive our negative outcome. It is in fact the act of taking a risk that raises the anxiety level and therefore increases our endorphins that may or may not lead to a happy outcome.

However, increasingly in post modern society, where new terms such as “cancel culture” have led to events being halted in advance or interrupted due to their controversial nature, parties have reached an unprecdented level of threat. While it is unfathonable to imagine all parties being cancelled due to their potential for controversy, it does remind us that there are three questions that should be asked prior to the approval of hosting a future event.

First, the organisers must ask ‘why’ the event is absolutely essential and be prepared to explain this in certain terms that will effectively argue that the time, expense and yes risk of holding an in person event is the most effective way to communicate and even celebrate with others.

Secondly, the host must ask ‘who’ should be invited and as the author of The Art of Gathering , Priya Parker suggests, even more importantly, who not to invite to insure that the petri dish of the party contains the proper alchemy for success.

Thirdly and finally, the stakeholders attending or contributing to the event must carefully determine the ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘what’ of the event by asking when is the best date and time and therefore best location available and what outcomes are most desired from the future event.

Despite all the best laid plans, as Robert Burns wrote in “To a Mouse” all parties are in fact unpredictable. Burns, a great lover of parties, wrote ” “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” Therefore, as we prepare for first footing during the season of Hogmanay followed by our annual Burns Suppers, we must remember that there is no guarantee that our experience will go as planned. Prime Minister’s and local folk have come to realise that one of the most dangerous and often delicious ways to come together as a human family carries with it various risks. We must therefore better anticipate these risks, identify ways to moderate our plans and behaviours and therefore perhaps reap even greater rewards in the future. And we must also remember if we are to continue to have fun, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”

Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University and is very much looking forward to carefully celebrating with friends and family during the festive season. To learn more about his views about celebrating visit www.joegoldblatt.scot

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