a turkey, with dread sauce on the side

Tis the season of goodwill ... and the feared office meal. As millions pull crackers with colleagues, Eleanor Bailey finds hate lurking 'neath the paper hats
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"She Used to make us play games that would deliberately humiliate people she didn't like. She would encourage people to look for weakness and torment each other. You would know where you stood in her favour because she put all the people she liked at one end of the table and the rest, the 'boring' people, at the other. It was awful, people would pretend to be ill rather than go. That was how it was when we were working for The Bitch," explains Geoff, who works in television. Ring out the bells, rejoice and be glad. For 'tis the season of the office Christmas lunch (again). An annual event of merrymaking and sadism.

Believe it or not, The Industrial Society sees a substantial rise in calls to its employee helpline over the Christmas lunch period. It's what spokesman Stefan Stern refers to as the "Seasonal Surge". Come January, when it's OK to feel wretched again, the desperate calls even out, but during the Christmas Lunch block, which many only enjoy through clenched teeth, it all gets too much.

First there is the stress of deciding somewhere that everyone is happy with. It seems like a great idea that everyone should have a say about the venue (and it is certainly more egalitarian than the "you will enjoy yourself in the canteen" approach where everyone gets a slice of pink turkey, a soggy roast potato, three Brussels sprouts, a glass of warm, sweet wine and a compulsory paper hat). But goodwill to all men (and women) can still wear thin. "We went through Chinese, English, Indian, American, Italian and vegetarian and everyone had a problem with something," says Michelle Avenine, an account executive at a London advertising agency. "If it wasn't peanut allergies it was 'Oh, but Italian gets a bit heavy in the afternoon'. I volunteered to organise it with great intentions but in the end, after I had been through hundreds of different E-mails, I said 'stuff it' and chose the place that I wanted to go. Everyone is pissed off now but I don't care anymore. They're all such bastards. I hope they all hate it."

Some are fussy not just about where they are going but where they are placed. "I finally went to book," says Michelle, "and the lads in the office said I had to check out who we were next to. If it was accountants or sales teams they weren't going. So I went back and told them it was a topless modelling agency. They're going to be disappointed."

"People often check out who they are going to be next to," says Debbie Garrity, 35, Manager of Ye Olde Cheddar Cheese on Fleet Street which, with Charles Dickens as a former regular, is a Yule atmosphere hotspot. "It can make a crucial difference to the occasion. I have to juggle quite carefully and put all the riotous ones together." Garrity's mixes can make for interesting scenarios. "Last year," she says, "we had a press table next to the Ministry of Agriculture. It was just after BSE had hit the headlines. The press kept trying to peer over to see if they were having beef. I think they all found it amusing."

Creating the perfect Christmas lunch is more than chance. If you've left it to this month to start planning, you are going to be disappointed, and might end up with the canteen option after all. "Some groups have already booked for Christmas 1997," says Debbie Garrity. "We send out the menus in August. We will have 2,000 people throughout the season. There are a lot of solicitors, accountants and old journalists who've been coming since they were in Fleet Street. The Daily Mirror Sports Desk comes every year."

The biggest problems are alcohol-related; violence and sex. "One person rang up the helpline," says Stefan Stern. "He was a board director, returning to the board room, and he caught the Chief Executive and the Chief Executive's secretary using the board table in a way that was not originally intended. He was in a terrible dilemma. Should he talk to the Chief Executive and would it affect his career prospects?"

In a company where communication is bad anyway, employees often grab the Christmas lunch as the time to say all those things that they've wanted to say all year. This is a mistake, says Jo Maddocks, an Occupational Psychologist and partner in John Cooper Associates. "There is an end-of- school feeling about the Christmas lunch. You forget that everything will be back to normal in January. But it's important to keep a guard up. You shouldn't let yourself go completely."

Even if you don't get into a fight, hate the people you're eating with, or inadvertently witness illicit sexual couplings, it can still be awful. Or just plain boring. Jane Smelton, who works in publishing, says "Last year we went to Sticky Fingers and we all got fed up. We got forced together and had nothing to talk about. We were all back in the office at 2.30pm, which was exceptionally pitiful because we were under no obligation to go back at all."

But of course it's not all bad news. It can be a warm and tingly team bonding session where you look into the shining faces of your colleagues, let bygones by bygones, leave the office politics behind for an afternoon and tell everyone how much you love them. It's amazing what lunchtime drinking can do. It can even be a time to make new friends. "We've had one marriage," says Ed Basnett, managing director at My Old Dutch, the pancake house on High Holborn, proudly. "They were sitting back to back with different parties when they came in, but after a few glasses they got together. They came in recently to tell me the good news. I think it's because we have a very warm atmosphere here. Lots of singing."