The office Christmas 'do' looms (festive spirit compulsory). Is there no escape? asks Hester Lacey
The grim spectacle of the office Christmas party is creeping over the horizon. For the unlucky, this means enforced jollity over the all- you-can-eat-buffet-with-disco (turkey, ham, choice of gateaux, half a bottle of wine per person, pounds 15 a head, DJ till late). A survey by Martini has shown that 80 per cent of workers will be taking part in some kind of seasonal "fun" this year. But are attempts to do something "alternative" likely to be any more enjoyable? Maybe. And maybe not.

"The grimmest Christmas party I ever had to go to was when my company arranged a mass paintballing session," says one management consultant. "There was a very strong 'bonding' ethic in the company and I was always considered a bit snooty - they said I didn't join in enough. So, there was a real three-line whip for me to turn up with a smile on my face, and everyone targeted me quite viciously."

"Last year we went to a health spa for the afternoon. It was incredibly expensive, we had to take all our clothes off and reveal ourselves in swimsuits, the food was all salad, and, of course, there was no booze," says a disgruntled Anna Soames, who works in personnel.

Rich companies can afford to take a share in big corporate bashes like Venetian masquerades and private fun-fairs, but few can afford the pounds 70 or so per head that such extravaganzas cost. One of last year's favoured treats was a trip to Paris for lunch on the Eurostar, but even such elegance can be scuppered by the long tentacles of traditional seasonal fun.

"Our boss made us take party hats and crackers," recalls estate agent Jacquie Brennan. "It looked ridiculous in this very discreet and smart Parisian restaurant. You could see that the other diners and the waiters were really looking down on us, especially when we got a bit raucous. Then, one of our managers was sick all the way home. It felt like a very long trip."

Small wonder that party organisers are attempting to get away from the medieval banquets and the pub-crawl buses. There is a lot to be said for the notion that the ideal Christmas celebration is giving everyone in the office pounds 20 to go off and have dinner alone at the restaurant of their choice, rather than inflicting "seasonal" jollies like Santa strippers or mock Sumo-wrestling in inflated suits on the reluctant. "I work for a very small firm, and this year we are going to have a nice quiet lunch in a restaurant, then settle down for the afternoon with our favourite board games and a few bottles of champagne," says trainee architect Charles Wheeler.

Jonathan Blaksley thinks he has an idea that will please many. A qualified London guide, he suggests a tailor-made walking tour. "More than any other city, London has grown up in various little professional enclaves. A very effective tour can be devised around all sorts of professions - finance, architecture, media, fashion. Most people go to their offices and just know them as an address that is a certain distance from the tube - but there are all kinds of other things to be discovered." This may sound an unlikely way of having fun: talking about work. But this is where the skill of the guide comes in. Blaksley's tours are not a dull rehash of the local guide book, his knowledge of London's history is minutely detailed and he knows how to bring his subjects to life. He reckons he can put together a tour on pretty much any London-related subject. And, cannily, he weaves in refreshment stops. "Pubs," he says, "are often steeped in history."

It's even possible to hire large-scale computer games like Doom or Quake as corporate entertainment - about as far from the trad party as it's possible to go.

And yet, says Kate Fox, social anthropologist at the Social Issues Research Centre, Oxford, the traditionally raucous Christmas do, complete with snogging and conga lines, serves a genuine purpose. "Christmas parties are governed by a special code of behaviour anthropologists call 'cultural remission': a temporary relaxation of normal social controls and restraints. It seems to be part of human nature that we need these opportunities to take time out from the restrictions of life," she says. "The pressures of everyday life are suspended and everyone is allowed to go a bit crackers."

For large-scale computer games, contact www.bogo.uk/flanagan. To contact Jonathan Blaksley, call 0171 924 7902.

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