"NAME ME one person," a friend remarked the other day, "whose career was helped by an office Christmas party." You can, in fact, probably go quite a way back in the history of these frequently disastrous celebrations without coming up with a name -- as far, it now appears, as 1492, when Christopher Columbus' career seems not to have been greatly advanced by the first Christmas party in the New World.

Kathleen Deagan, head of the anthropology department of the Florida State Museum in Gainesville, said this week that Columbus' flagship, the Santa Maria, might well have been ruined on Christmas because of a couple of days of partying and gift-exchanging between its crew and a band of curious Arawak Indians who had rowed out from the island of Hispaniola to meet the European explorers.

"We can certainly speculate the crew was exhausted from being up all night and that they probably drank a few toasts," said Prof. Deagan. For our part, we could carry that speculation further and suggest that after several of those toasts, some of them were probably climbing around in the rigging and others singing dirty songs, and after a few more, two or three fell overboard and one was wearing a lampshade from the captain's cabin. We could also speculate that at some point, Columbus was cornered near the avocado dip, where he listened with a tight little smile as a sailor explained to him that quite frankly he and most of the others had thought until only recently that he was a damned idiot but since the sighting of land had regarded him in a much better light and that really he should "Come on and loosen up, Chris baby."

Perhaps he took the advice. That night the exhausted sailors "put the cabin boy at the helm," said Prof. Deagan. "Everyone else fell asleep." When Columbus awoke the next morning, the ship was grinding itself up on a reef and had to be abandoned. The crew salvaged the Santa Maria's timbers and constructed a fort, thereby initiating a custom that continues to this day in the Western Hemisphere: rebuilding from the wreckage of the office Christmas party.