Merry Un-Christmas: Untraditional Ways to Celebrate the Holidays at Work

By Michele Poacelli December 11, 2017

​With the holidays approaching and to-do lists growing longer than St. Nick's beard, it may be tempting for workplaces to default to tradition: hang the lights, cue the holiday music and arrange for the white elephant gift exchange.

But what if your work holiday routine feels as stale as stuffing bread? What if decorations and celebrations, instead of bringing cheer, offend or exclude some employees? It may be time to re-evaluate your workplace festivities to ensure that the days are merry and bright for all. Here are some ideas to help you reimagine—and reignite—the holiday spirit:

Have a Winter Picnic

Everyone looks forward to the summertime company picnic, so why not host a winter one?  Event Solutions, a Los Angeles-based event planning company, offers winter-themed picnics complete with giant inflatable gingerbread houses, interactive light shows and displays, carolers, face painting for the kids, and even snow brought in for sledding and snowball fights.  Amanda Masick, vice president of marketing at the company, notes a growing trend in more relaxed, inclusive and family-friendly holiday parties. "Employees are more engaged when their families are considered part of the extended work family." Event Solutions has coordinated everything from corporate end-of-year  galas to daytime office parties with hot cocoa bars and ugly-sweater-making activities. The best parties, according to Masick, are the ones that keep with company culture and revolve around employees, not the holidays. 

Food, Glorious Food

Many companies set aside time during the last month of the year to highlight the accomplishments of their employees. The Philadelphia branch of a major pharmaceutical company holds its annual employee appreciation lunch at the beginning of December. Bountiful buffet options include turkey, ham, mashed and sweet potatoes, green beans, corn, artisan breads, and an array of desserts. One long-time employee, who asked that her name not be used, looks forward to the lunch as a time to reconnect with colleagues and take a breath during an otherwise hectic month: "It is really nice to see everyone and to know that the company is saying thank you for a successful year."

Some companies end the year by giving thanks to employees; others begin it that way. Since December tends to be stuffed with activities, January can be the perfect time to toast both the new year and employees' efforts. Andrea Mameniskis, an administrator at Princeton University's School of Engineering and Applied Science, organizes a staff appreciation meal on the Friday of the first week in January. A family-style hot lunch is served, and chocolate truffles are given as favors to take away. The dean of the engineering school addresses her staff with a pep talk for the new year and thanks them for their service. Mameniskis says, "The after-the-new-year scheduling of our lunch has been so well-received. Everyone is much more relaxed and really enjoys the camaraderie of spending time with colleagues."

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The Spirit of Giving

One of the familiar sounds of the season is the ringing of the Salvation Army bell. Some companies celebrate the holidays by inviting a bell ringer, and the spirit of giving that comes with, into the workplace. David Bell, an aptly named employee of Mercersburg Academy, a private boarding high school in south central Pennsylvania, has been organizing a Salvation Army Angel Tree at his school for over 20 years. Beginning in November, Bell and his wife Julie, a librarian at the school, decorate a tree with 75 gift tags. Members of the school community are invited to take a tag that lists a child's age, clothing size and gift wish. Mid-December, Bell gathers the Angel Tree presents and delivers them to the Salvation Army facility in Chambersburg, Penn. He dedicates approximately 15 hours to the Angel Tree project, which makes his busy holiday season even busier. "But we all feel good helping people out."

Three Hearts Initiative is the community and charity outreach arm of Custom Ink, a customized T-shirt and apparel company based in Fairfax, Va. Volunteerism is a core value of the company, and employees donate their time and skills year-round to the communities in which they're located. The volunteers are especially active during the holidays when they support local food banks, sponsor giving trees to benefit nonprofit groups, and raise money and host adoption events for animal shelters. The Dallas office of Custom Ink is on a bus route and serves as a food bank drop location where people can cash in vouchers for free turkeys and take home boxes of food. Lori Mayfield, community and charity outreach lead in Reno, Nev., said that "Volunteerism is more powerful than donation."

So with so many ways to do something truly unique and special at work this holiday season, why default to tradition? Shake it up—like glitter in a snow globe.

Michele Poacelli is a freelance writer based in Mercersburg, Penn.

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