In Britain, A Respected, If Rowdy, Holiday Ritual

Attendants from the London Ambulance Service help hold up a 40-year-old man at Liverpool Street station, where the service set up a medical unit to treat injured and inebriated casualties of the traditionally booze-soaked holiday party.
Attendants from the London Ambulance Service help hold up a 40-year-old man at Liverpool Street station, where the service set up a medical unit to treat injured and inebriated casualties of the traditionally booze-soaked holiday party. (By Mary Jordan -- The Washington Post)
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By Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 23, 2007

LONDON -- Just before midnight, the well-dressed, 25-year-old financial trader arrived by ambulance at the makeshift hospital tent pitched at a train station in central London. Blood oozed from his scalp, staining his elegant pink-striped shirt.

"What happened to your head?" asked Dixie Dean, an emergency care specialist with the London Ambulance Service, as she wrapped gauze around his head and checked for a skull fracture.

"I don't remember," said the dazed man. He was the latest injured drunk this busy night in the medical tent set up to care for casualties of the infamous British office party.

In many parts of the world, companies hold Christmas parties -- or holiday, year-end bashes -- for employees. But in Britain, the gatherings have become a particularly potent institution, legendary for massive booze consumption that leads to fistfights, firings and spur-of-the-blurry-moment indiscretions in boardrooms and parking lots.

Dean compared the Christmas season in Britain to New Year's Eve in New York -- except that here, the binges run nightly for two solid weeks leading up to Dec. 25.

The spike in alcohol-related emergency calls from office parties is so predictable that the ambulance service has a special medical vehicle to patrol the streets. With room for five people, it's known as the "Booze Bus" or "Vomit Comet."

"Yet the office Christmas party endures," said Sam Gill, who has been helping plan them for 19 years. They are such a tradition that even in slow economic times, "it would take a lot to take the Christmas office party off the calendar."

Lawyers are increasingly warning companies that they should not provide free-flowing alcohol for fear of injury and sexual harassment lawsuits like those that have arisen in the past.

In one case, a London lawyer won and collected damages believed to be well over $1 million after a senior lawyer at her investment bank made remarks about her breasts and sex life at the office party. Another executive won a suit after claiming she was ridiculed by her boss at the office Christmas party about her decision to convert to Islam and eat halal meat.

Gill said American companies based in England are a bit "more concerned about litigation" arising from boozing at late-night Christmas celebrations and typically shut down their parties at 9 p.m.

Groups promoting alcohol awareness in Britain -- which consistently comes out at or near the top in surveys of Europe's heaviest-drinking countries -- say tradition or not, it may be time to tame the Christmas party. This month, Prime Minister Gordon Brown convened a summit meeting on binge drinking at his 10 Downing Street office.

But, despite the warnings, many in Britain are standing up for parties with an almost patriotic vigor. As one enthusiastic commentator on "Comment is free," the popular forum on the Guardian Unlimited Web site, recently noted, "Projectile vomiting is our birthright."


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