For most Minnesotans, December is a festive month of merrymaking and good cheer. But at the University of Minnesota it's the most dangerous time of the year.
A Dec. 5 article on the University's website, "Reevaluating seasonal office parties," sets forth the perils. Its authors, Dee Anne Bonebright of the U's Office of Human Resources and Julie Sweitzer of the Office of System Academic Administration, exhort U employees to be on their guard.
The memo makes clear that the limits most of us have learned to put on our Christmas spirit in recent years -- you know, catching yourself before you hum "Joy to the World" in public -- are no longer enough at the U of M.
In 2007, the enlightened Grinches keeping watch over U-ville (with apologies to Dr. Seuss) are trying to keep the spirit of Christmas from coming at all.
December office parties of any kind are now suspect at our state's flagship institution of higher education.
The problem, explain Bonebright and Sweitzer in their memo, is that "celebrations held in December tend to make people think of Christmas, whatever the theme." And who knows where that could lead?
Due to what they call "seasonal creep," warn Bonebright and Sweitzer, "an event that is meant to be a seasonal celebration [with no allusion to Christmas] suddenly looks very Christmasy when decorated with green and red."
And here I thought seasonal creep referred to that guy who can't keep his hands to himself or his nose out of the punch bowl.
Anyway, don't suppose that including acknowledgements of Hannukah and Kwanzaa can keep an event from looking too Christmasy. That sort of inclusiveness, say Bonebright and Sweitzer, can be seen as "insensitive" and "won't change the underlying message."
Like what? Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men?
Bonebright and Sweitzer are equal opportunity wet blankets. It's not just non-Christians, they warn, who may be offended by Christmas parties in disguise. Some Christians may dislike them too.
"An evangelical Christian may have misgivings about the commercialism of Christmas and not enjoy associations with Santa Claus," they write. "Some groups celebrate on a later date and a few don't recognize the holiday at all."
Who might those few be? "I didn't go far enough into it to know what ones they are, but I know there are some," said Bonebright in an interview.
There's yet another reason to banish December office parties, advises the memo: Parties cause stress -- that bugaboo of our psycho-therapeutic age.
"Holiday periods can be stressful for people living far from their families or going through hard times," advise Bonebright and Sweitzer. "A well-intended office party may actually cause more pain than joy for some of your colleagues."
Let me get this straight. If you're lonely and blue, a celebration with co-workers will make things worse? Better to sit home, "solitary as an oyster" (apologies to Charles Dickens) and stare at the wall?
OK, Bonebright and Sweit-zer, we give up. No Christmas, no parties. We'll all wear long faces so no one gets stressed.
But it turns out this lands us in a dilemma. While it is a "mistake" to "plan 'holiday' celebrations that resemble Christmas parties in disguise," it is also a mistake "to do nothing at all," advises Bonebright in a related memo on the U's site.
How to solve this riddle? Bonebright and Sweitzer suggest "themes that everyone can appreciate, such as the end of fall semester or the beginning of winter."
End of fall semester? Wow, that's a fun one. In my day, people used to do that with a keg of beer before they piled in the car and skedaddled off the campus as fast as they could.
The beginning of winter? Talk about a stress creator! Besides, isn't there a danger that if we focus on winter we'll start thinking about ... Christmas?
Undeterred, Bonebright and Sweitzer suggest, "It may be better to plan activities for January or February."
The U's Christmas critics are only the latest in a long line that reaches at least as far back as the Puritans, who at one point outlawed Christmas (though not, presumably, because they thought it depressed people). But today -- as always -- our world needs fewer Scrooges, and more high spirits.
What's the point of office get-togethers? Bonebright and Sweitzer seem to assume that the goal is to enhance office productivity, and to ensure that "work flows more smoothly" and "individuals are motivated."
But Christmas or holiday parties, or whatever you call them, have a very different purpose. They remind us that life is about more than spreadsheets -- that there's a world beyond the office where real human beings laugh, talk about their families, and share the interests that give their lives meaning, fun and joy.
If we forget this, we risk sucking everything warm and human out of this wonderful season of the year.