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Roman Holidays

"You have people gathering and moving from floor to floor in a very crowded situation," recalls Carole Marchesano, one of the firm's directors and the baker of those brownies. "And people enjoyed that. Squeezing by each other on the steps, squeaking by each other in the hallways."

There was legendary overindulgence, but precautions were taken. If people passed out, Marchesano says, the sleepers would be carried to a basement office, where her husband, Norman Goldberg, would lock them in for safety's sake. Once sobered, they would telephone upstairs to be released.

One year, the agency moved the party to a local nightclub to accommodate an unusual act: Uncle Heavy and the Pork Chop Review, an animal show that featured performing hogs and dancing dogs. "We always tried to bring something original to each party," Marchesano says.

"Towards the end, we were sending out about 200 invitations, and about 600 were showing up," she says. "It was just not to be believed . . . It was the party of the year. It truly was."

The last party was sometime in the late 1980s. The couple sold their business about four years ago.

The next decade brought economic insecurity, caution and social concerns. Some party money went for donations to the homeless and other causes.

The Christmas bonus, long gone, had been replaced by "performance-driven" incentives. With that in mind, experts studied party dynamics: It was found that social anxiety lowered IQ. Alcohol lowered inhibitions. "So you're kind of dumb, and now you've got fewer inhibitions," one scholar warned. Office partying, like everything else, required skill, training and strategies, and it began to sound a lot like work.

Then came 9/11, and its slaughter of office workers in New York and Washington. In the aftermath, holiday office celebration almost ceased. "Basically, holiday parties were nonexistent," says Susan Lacz, a principal at Ridgewells, the Bethesda catering company.

Sanitized, scrutinized and downsized, the holiday office party seemed doomed. But the human yearning to gather for the rites of winter still smoldered. Despite tight company budgets, the national mood and the state of the global economy, by 2002 the gloom had lifted. The year of mourning was over, and there was a sense that terrorism should not conquer life.

"It's human nature," Lacz says. "It's what we do . . . Having a need to be with others. It's celebratory. It's warmth."

But lessons were learned. Nowadays there are often two company parties -- one for employees and one for customers. The size of the party also depends on the fortunes of the industry. There have been troubles in telecommunications but good times for oil, defense and, in Washington, lawyers. "The lawyers are still partying," Lacz says.

The Romans would have understood. Unbeknown to Caesar, he was attending his last Saturnalia blowout that long-ago December. By March he was dead, stabbed 23 times by a group of 6o jealous assassins. Cicero, the party host, didn't last, either. Two years after the party, he was tracked down by his enemies and decapitated. The date was December 7, and all over Rome people were preparing again for the annual feast.

"For how many years shall this festival abide?" the Roman poet Statius asked a century later.

As long as the hills of Latium survive and Rome stands, he answered himself: "Never shall age destroy so holy a day."

Michael E. Ruane is a staff writer for The Post's Metro section.

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