Every year for Thanksgiving or Christmas, Cynthia Hartley invites 600 of her co-workers over for the holiday meal.
She sends out a company-wide e-mail at Chemonics International in the District, asking anyone who would be alone for that holiday to join her at her home. Then she waits to see who responds — and who she’s going to meet over wild mushroom risotto and turkey or perhaps a braised veal shank.
“My family’s scattered all up and down the East Coast. We hardly have time to get together,” said Hartley, who works as manager of business information for the international development consulting firm. “D.C.’s such a transient city. There’s always a lot of new people [at Chemonics]; how terrible for them to be alone for the holidays.”
In a world of blurred boundaries and workplace friends who become a second family, it’s not surprising that we have co-workers and even our boss come in for Christmas dinner or Hanukkah latkes and even a New Year’s party. And this may be more prevalent in the District, where many move here for jobs, spend more time at work and then depend on workplace friendships for their social life.
To be sure, some workers, faced with increasing demands and long hours, “might treasure a bit of distance from their bosses and co-workers during their limited free time,” Paul Rowson, an independent human resources consultant in the District, said in an e-mail. “Their home and limited dedicated time with family just might be their last remaining sanctuary.”
Yet many others, especially those who are single or with no family nearby, work friendships extend to evenings at bars, restaurants, charity events and more. A few may even get invitations to home-cooked meals at their boss’s home.
Every year, Rosemary Kilkenny holds a holiday lunch for her Georgetown University team of seven full-time staffers and a couple of student workers in her home, which is already decorated for Christmas. She serves dishes from her native Guyana — meat patties, salmon quiche and a fresh fruit punch with pineapple and mangoes.
Kilkenny, Georgetown’s vice president of institutional diversity and equity, said she thinks the meal at her home is more special than any restaurant meal could be.
“We get to know each other a little bit better,” she said, with talk of holiday plans and sharing updates on children.
Others are creating their own holiday traditions with co-workers and friends commingled.
Rebecca Ribbing and her husband, Mark Ribbing, have hosted a vegetarian Thanksgiving meal for five years on the Saturday before the holiday. They each invite work colleagues and other friends and encourage vegetarian eating and camaraderie. “It’s a nice way for my work people and my husband’s work people to make connections, too,” said Ribbing, who works as a success strategist helping individuals map and travel to “what’s next” in their careers. Her husband is a political appointee who works in communications for the Defense Department.
Hartley’s annual holiday dinner feeds a mix of friends, family, friends of friends and co-workers, sometimes 10 and sometimes 20 people. She always makes her signature dishes: tiramisu and wild mushroom risotto. The rest of the menu varies.
The idea for a larger group meal came to Hartley after she was invited into many people’s homes while backpacking across Europe and traveling internationally. People were so welcoming of her, she started to do the same, first inviting friends of friends and then extending it to the workplace and her co-workers.
“People have totally forgotten what the true meaning of Christmas is,” she said. “It’s caring about other people, being with people you care about.”
3 To avoid awkward silences or too much work talk, come up with a few topics of conversation that your cousins and aunt and your co-workers all can chime in on. Sometimes sports work, or a discussion of a favorite holiday memory or worst holiday travel experience, said Christine K. Jahnke, owner of Positive Communications, a speech coaching company in D.C., and author of “The Well Spoken Woman” book. “Purposely think of some topics that you could introduce as icebreakers.”
3 Be very clear about the gathering, who’s going to be there and what you’re likely to do. “It takes the mystery out of it” for colleagues, she said.
3 Decide ahead of time your menu, and whether you are going to accommodate special dietary needs or desires. Rosemary Kilkenny always checks with her staff at Georgetown University; she serves a fruit salad along with another dessert.
3 Be prepared, though, for a relative who’s had one too many eggnogs to start sharing stories of your childhood interest in worms or teenage zeal to swim naked in a neighbor’s pool. “People are so much more likely to say something inappropriate after they’ve had one or two too many,” said Jahnke. To avoid that, skip the hard alcohol and offer a champagne toast or just a few bottles of wine instead.
— Vickie Elmer