Dec 162009

According to some, I am the “Queen of Parties.” I truly love going to parties and I host plenty of my own get-togethers too. I know at least a dozen people I could call right now to invite to any kind of celebration. I have a running list of quick foods and appetizers I can prepare and I can make small talk with anyone and have a great time doing it. To me, a party is not a stress. It is just fun.

Some might be shocked at the pace of my social calendar. Since mid-November, I have planned and attended the Marine Officer Wives of the China Lake Marine Air Division’s pre-Marine Corps Birthday Ball cocktail party and the Marine Corps Ball itself, a monthly wine club tasting dinner I’m a member of, Thanksgiving turkey sourcing, my son’s 3rd grade Great American feast potluck, my son’s piano teacher’s concert, the Marine Air Division Kids Holiday Party, our squadron’s adult Christmas party, as well as our annual Kids Party for the squadron where Santa arrives on a helicopter. (And that is the very best thing of all!)

Anne tells me that not everyone is this social and asked me to give some survival pointers to those who are less enthusiastic about attending formal parties, specifically, the office holiday party.

First, why have an office party at all? It’s not like we don’t see each other every single day of the entire year. The reason is to get to know one another on a different level. During one holiday party dinner, two gentlemen I was sitting with had worked in the same industry for over 20 years together. For the first time in all of those years, these two men discussed extensively their antique car collections, muscle cars and races and all things cars. They never knew each other’s passion for this subject. And I learned a lot about cars that evening. It’s always fascinating to see what other people’s interests are outside of work. And the best way to do that is the office party.

At another party, I discussed with a coworker of 5+ years, golf. It turns out he competed extensively all through high school, was the member of prestigious golf clubs in the southern California area, and gave me start-up tips and even helped me select my clubs. (Which are fabulous, I must say!) I NEVER would have found this out (or it would have taken MUCH longer) just in a normal work environment. So when you attend these parties—sit by someone you don’t know and learn something about them. As you can see, being open to learning something new and asking a lot of questions are some of the secrets to great conversation.

The first thing you need for a good office party is someone that WANTS to plan it. I will never forget Karen and Lori—who for one Halloween maximized a small budget and decorated our conference room to the 9s!! It was so much fun! The company sponsored pizza and soda, and people brought a dessert to share. So send out an email asking for a volunteer(s) to plan the event.

Don’t just randomly assign the party planning to someone who may or may not want to do it or the person or position who “always does it.” The energy of a good planner (or better yet, a planning committee) translates into all aspects of the party and has a big impact on whether people want to attend and whether they will have a good time. I find that a three to four-person committee works best for party planning with a coordinator (to oversee, keep everyone energized and promote the party–this is usually me), several artistically talented folks to help with decorations and invitations, and of course, a good cook to organize the food. A side benefit of a planning committee is that you have more people invested in the party who will then attend to show off their handiwork.

Office parties don’t have to be complicated. A party can be as simple as making reservations for lunch out of the office at a local restaurant. A change of scenery does wonders for morale! The restaurant does not have to be expensive either–a local diner, local chain restaurant or even fast food restaurant all can work with the right planning and promotion.

Potluck is also a common office holiday party tradition. Potlucks are great because they are cheap (or even free) and also offer built-in conversation starters (“Yum! This is delicious! Who made this?” “What’s in this?” “Someone else loves ____ as much as I do?!?”) At one company I worked for, everyone was asked to bring their favorite food for the potluck. While we enjoyed many delicious and lovingly-homemade foods, there were also pre-made deli plates and, most famously, one friend brought literally 15 cheeseburgers from Burger King to add to the menu.

Entertainment is key! Yes, there must be an activity/game, something that will bring people out of their shells. (No groaning, please!) If musical chairs or limbo are not your style, read on for some other suggestions. At one company I worked for, we had great fun with a DVD exchange. For those of you not schooled in the “exchange” system, I will review the rules. Everyone that wanted to participate bought a DVD, wrapped it and then we each drew numbers. #1 gets to pick first, then #2—and you can steal the other person’s DVD if you liked that one better. Usually the 3rd owner of the DVD keeps it and it can’t be stolen after that—and at the end of the game #1 gets to steal any DVDs that haven’t had 3 owners at the end of the game. Hilarity ensues as everyone argues over the best presents. A great DVD gift item from that party was Phil’s—he bought the movie Ratatouille, added a bottle of inexpensive French wine, and included a recipe for Ratatouille. Very clever! New kids’ videos were also a hot commodity. I ended up with “Knocked Up”—very funny movie if you haven’t seen it. In place of DVDs, a white elephant could be done instead where anything—good/bad/ugly can be wrapped. That can be an absolute hoot! Last year at one party I received a broken ceramic rooster. That’s a keeper for sure!

Also company trivia (or any trivia) contest can be good. One company nicknamed their database Claven—after Cliff Claven (the know-it-all) on Cheers. Or a raffle of 5 or 10 low-priced items, like movie tickets, Starbucks $5 gift cards–small things that are fun to receive and use and make people interact with each other.

If you are not very excited about going to an office party but you have to go, what can you do personally to make the experience more fun? Show up with a positive attitude. That’s the best thing ANYONE can contribute—because after all, someone has gone to the trouble to plan this event. Whether it’s any good or not is most dependent on the people who show, and the attitude they bring. Fun people can trump a bad menu, lack of entertainment, whatever problem may arise. So enjoy yourself! Usually these are just once a year!!

What are your favorite office holiday party memories or ideas? Please post in the comments.

 Posted by on December 16, 2009 Ruly Ruth Tagged with: , , , ,
Dec 142009

Time is becoming ever more precious in our household with just 11 days to go before Christmas. We have done most of the shopping but still have presents to wrap and ship and decorations to put up.

For anyone shipping presents this year, I will pass on a shipping lesson I learned the hard way a few years back. Each of the major carriers (UPS, FedEx, U.S. Post Office) has a deadline in their fine print after which they will no longer guarantee that your package will arrive on time for Christmas. Sure, they will still take your package and will still let you pay the expedited shipping price but there is no guarantee that your package will make it by Christmas and, more importantly, no refund if it does not. You would think that this information would be printed somewhere in big, bold letters not the fine print. For reference, here is my summary of this year’s fine print.

Cut-off Date Service
before December 11 UPS Ground and UPS Standard Deadline is already past. Package had to be delivered before December 11 to guarantee arrival by Christmas. Note that you can still send things UPS Ground and chances are they probably will be delivered on time but there is no guarantee.
December 16 U.S. Postal Service Parcel Post
before December 18 All FedEx services
before December 21 UPS 3-Day Select or U.S. air services Package must be picked up before Monday, December 21. Your best bet is to get it out by this Friday, December 18.
December 21 U.S. Postal Service First Class Mail and Priority Mail
December 23 U.S. Postal Service Express Mail

Bottom line: Get any packages in the mail in the next few days or tell your recipients that they are arriving after Christmas or send online gift certificates.

If you are employed or a business owner, in addition to your personal holiday errands you have the added burden of business holiday errands. What are businesses expected to do for the holidays?

While most of the year, businesses generally ignore the holidays, the December holidays (and Thanksgiving) are usually an exception. Many successful businesses use the December holidays as an opportunity to reconnect with their best clients and employees and thank them for their business and hard work over the past year. This can be done in a number of ways.

1.  Cards – Most businesses do send a holiday card to their clients and business partners. The message is typically a generic “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” or “Wishing you a prosperous New Year.” Last year, many businesses stopped sending paper cards and began sending electronic cards, both to save printing and postage expenses and as an eco-friendly initiative.

Do you have to send business holiday cards? There is certainly no requirement but if you are in the sales department or in any type of position where cultivating a good personal relationship with your contact is an asset, the answer is probably yes. With holiday cards, you don’t tend to get a lot of business goodwill if you send them, but you certainly can generate “bad will” if you don’t send them or if you don’t send them in the right way. The “scoring” for corporate holiday cards tends to go as follows:

Negative points – You don’t send a holiday card when someone expects one. Some people view their holiday card collection as a popularity contest. If you don’t send a card, it is almost as though you sent a card saying, “You’re not that important.” You can also score negative points if you send a card to someone’s boss but forget the lower-level contact you were dealing with directly.

Zero points – You send a generic card pre-printed with your name or a mass e-mail. A good effort (and sometimes, given work time pressures, all that can be managed) but nothing spectacular.

Positive points – You write a short personal note with your card thanking the person for their business or mentioning something specific you appreciated. Your corporate card reflects something unique about your business and reminds the recipient of why they chose to work with you in the first place.

2.  Gifts – Corporate gifts are becoming more and more difficult to give and receive. Before you send a gift to a corporate client, make sure that it is not going to trigger some sort of conflict of interest problem for them (or for your own business!). In today’s economic climate, modesty is the preferred course so any gifts should be small tokens rather than outrageous displays of expense. Food is the most common business gift, from fruit baskets to chocolates and popcorn tins. Generally, these gifts are put out in a common space for the entire staff to share, along with your card. I have to say that when a gift basket works, it generally works very well and does generate tremendous goodwill for a business.

3. Decorations – This is a tough one if you have a diverse workforce representing many different cultural backgrounds. It is one thing to give a holiday card that says “Season’s Greetings” but designing your decorations to be generic is tough. Most corporate decorations look quite Christmas-y with trees or wreaths or presents. To be really elegant, you might need the help of a professional designer to come up with something that is more generic and appropriate for your workspace. You could also solicit suggestions from your employees.

There are a few don’ts with decorations. Candles are not recommended due to the fire hazard they pose. Plants can also be difficult as they trigger allergies in some people and can be breeding grounds for gnats and other bugs. Also, if your plants need watering or tending, make sure to hire a company to do this or assign someone in the office or the plants will look terrible within a few days and your money is wasted. Finally, if your company is struggling or has had to reduce employee pay recently, be very careful with your decorating budget. Instead of cheering your employees, the employees will only be reminded that when given a choice whether to give a raise to employees or decorate the office, the office decorations took priority.

4. Parties and Gatherings – The office holiday party is both loved and loathed by employees. It can be extravagant or simple. Ruly Ruth is going to give us some advice on this on Wednesday. Some businesses elect to forgo the office holiday party altogether. Unfortunately, since the office holiday party often coincides with end of the year budgeting considerations, it can be a difficult time of year to make merry. One company laid off half its staff in early December one year only to realize that the holiday party scheduled a week later was inappropriate. The party was canceled a few days later.

5.  Bonuses – The holiday bonus has become an endangered species in recent years. Few companies offer them and typically they are only awarded to executives. Most employees would agree that the best way to say “thank you for your hard work” is in dollars. If that is economically impossible, then the next best “bonus” would be a sincere expression of gratitude and perhaps a small token gift. One employer sent a $20 grocery gift card each Thanksgiving along with a brief note of thanks to its employees. It was a meaningful and thoughtful present.

    What steps is your business taking to recognize the holidays this year? Please share in the comments.

     Posted by on December 14, 2009 General Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
    Dec 112009

    If the idea of crafts does not excite you for handmade holiday presents, another option is food. Food is in many ways a great gift. It is delicious but also consumable so the giver doesn’t have to worry about storing it, dusting it, displaying it, etc. Food is the source of many fond holiday memories for many people. It is also one of the chief ways we hand down traditions from generation to generation and remember our ethnic and cultural heritage.

    If you are a great cook, this is your moment to shine! You can adopt a signature food that you give every holiday season. Some of the staple food gifts in our families have been:

    • Virginia fudge (made in Utah! with brown sugar and marshmallows)
    • Greek cookies: Koulourakia, Melomakarona, and Baklava
    • White chocolate dipped pretzels (an interesting mixture of salty and sweet)
    • Garapiñados (candied almonds)
    • English toffee
    • Mint jelly

    One of the most interesting food gift traditions to me is fruitcake. In my lifetime, I have met many people who make or give fruitcake but I have yet to meet a person who actually enjoys eating it! I don’t particularly care for it myself. I think some people make it out of a sense of obligation to traditions past. Fruitcake might have been a popular dessert at some point in time but in today’s world with so many options for sweet things to eat (especially chocolate), fruitcake seems more akin to something like wheat germ or spinach, that is good for you but not especially craveable, than a treat. (If you are a fruitcake lover, please fill me in on what I am missing in the comments.)

    You can give food in many ways. My favorite way to receive food is in the ready-to-eat variety (a plate of cookies, a jar of salsa, etc.). You can also give pre-made baking mixes with a recipe attached. For a zillion, “mix in a jar” ideas, including cookies, flavored coffees, hot chocolate, soups and spice mixes, check out this link.   Another idea is to give a nice holiday card with one of your favorite recipes printed on the back (bonus points if you include a picture of the food or yourself or family members eating the food).

    The downside of food gifts, of course, is when you have people with special diets or allergies on your list. Many people struggling with their weight detest receiving sweets. There are also those who are just picky and won’t eat anything that they don’t already know and like. For folks on a diet (and really anyone these days!), a smaller sized portion of your goodies would be thoughtful–enough to get a taste but not enough to over-indulge. For the picky folks, the recipe route might be the way to go, unless if you are willing to make a special food that is exactly to their liking.

    If you are not a cook, you can of course purchase food as well. One of the most thoughtful presents I received when I just delivered my first child was a fruit and sweets box from Harry & David. It was great to serve to folks dropping in to visit or for us to snack on when I was too tired to cook. We have also received and enjoyed grapefruit juice from Pittman & Davis and Priester’s pecan pies. If you are going to purchase food, make sure you purchase something of excellent quality and something that the person is likely to eat.  Beware of cultural sensitivities in this area too.  Sausage or alcohol might be unacceptable to some people.  Less is more when it comes to food. A really nice small box of Godiva chocolates is more of a treat than an enormous but cheap assortment box. Local restaurants may also offer food gifts that could introduce the recipient to a new restaurant as well. The Metrocurean blog offers some great local food gift suggestions for those in the Washington, DC area.

    This evening at sundown is the start of Hanukkah. Happy Hanukkah to those who celebrate! I looked up what foods are popular during Hanukkah. According to, fried foods and dairy foods are the staple foods during Hanukkah. Soofganiot (fried donuts) and fried potato latkas are favorites. On the dairy side, cheesecake, cheese blintzes, cheese kreplach (like a tortellini) and even cheese pizza are popular. You also must check out this story on NPR about the Hanukkah song Mormon Senator Orrin Hatch wrote in collaboration with writer Jeffrey Goldberg….it’s actually kind of catchy!

    Have a wonderful weekend!

     Posted by on December 11, 2009 General Tagged with: , , , , , ,
    Dec 092009

    Exploring the concept of Hundred Dollar Holiday, you might be wondering what types of gifts you can give that don’t cost a lot but will be valued by the recipient. Over the next couple of posts, we will come up with some suggestions that you can either use this year or think about for next year.

    Handmade gifts are often one of the first suggestions for those on a budget. While many people (like myself) think handmade gifts are fantastic, there are those who groan at the concept. Not everyone likes them and not everyone has the time or talent to make great handmade gifts.

    If you are not crafty, there is good news, there are hundreds of crafty people out there selling really cool stuff for not a lot of money. You don’t need to frequent craft shows to find them either. If you have not heard of the website Etsy, you should definitely pay it a visit. Etsy is dedicated to the sale of handmade and vintage items but also lists a variety of cool and offbeat stuff. Etsy sells everything from jewelry to craft items to handmade cards, fashion and unique screenprinted shirts. Some examples:

    If you don’t have time to browse through the site yourself to find the coolest stuff, Etsy also provides “finders” to find gifts along certain themes. You can check out their finds at their website or sign up for their email updates. If you are looking for a unique, personal gift, Etsy is your spot.

    If you are crafty, so much the better! The only caution here, though is to think carefully about what types of gifts will be appreciated by your recipient. Something might be fun to make but totally impractical. Also, you have to have a bit of a thick skin with your handwork. If people don’t like your creations, don’t be disheartened if the recipient tosses them out or gives them away. Don’t expect everyone to want to wear/use your creations or store them forever just because you made them. If you can’t take the rejection, you might go the Etsy route or find some other gift option.

    When giving a gift of handwork, it is usually best to stick to something small and simple (ornaments, potholders, socks, magnets, etc.) unless the recipient has specifically requested a large project like a sweater, quilt or wooden chest. See, for example, this article on “The Sweater Curse,” describing the perils of knitting for boyfriends. Also, over time, you will learn who appreciates handwork and who does not.

    So, what handmade gifts do I/would I appreciate receiving?

    I have an ornament exchange to attend at the end of the month and am considering making a Japanese-inspired amigurumi ornament like one of the following:

    I have a collection of handmade hotpads that I love (although I am at the limit on hotpads currently).

    Scarves/ponchos – I like to make and receive these but there is a limit as to what ends up being worn. Last year, on a dollar-store challenge, I found some great novelty metallic yarn for a buck and knitted it on large needles into a lacy poncho-type drape for my sister. She wore it as part of her Halloween costume this year.

    Mittens – I love the “Critter Collection” designs at Morehouse Farms, especially for children.

    Leather belt – If this Martha Stewart project comes out as beautiful as the photos, this would be a fun addition to a stylish wardrobe.

    My mother-in-law gave me some very cool custom embroidered jeans for my birthday.  I sent her a pair of jeans I liked and that fit well and she zazzed them up with an embroidery design on her embroidery machine.

    Combining photos and family memories is a popular and thoughtful gift, too.  Some creative ideas in this area:

    • Memory books – upload photos or scanned artwork to create a custom book for grandparents, friends, coworkers, etc.
    • Photo cubes – Martha Stewart craft project transforming photos into unique bookend blocks.
    • Family tree – Martha Stewart to the rescue again with an artistic template to create a one-of-a-kind original family tree.

    One year, I made custom screenprinted long-sleeved T-shirts at using a piece of my daughter’s abstract artwork. They were a big hit and have been well worn by the recipients.

    Another year, my sister-in-law used glass etching to mark the bottom of glass casserole pans with each recipient’s name–for a beautiful and functional gift.

    Our nanny made a lovely handmade book with custom story and illustrations for our daughter’s birthday one year, which is a treasure.

    There are so many more examples.  My house is full of a lot of handmade objects. Once you get a reputation for someone who appreciates handmade objects, you are more likely to receive a lot of them.

    Of course, there is a whole other genre of homemade gifts from the kitchen….another post to come on that in a few days.

    What do you think of homemade gifts? Love them? Hate them? Have a favorite non-cooking homemade gift to share? Please post in the comments.

     Posted by on December 9, 2009 General Tagged with: , , ,
    Dec 072009

    It is beginning to feel a little more holiday-like around our house. We experienced the first real snow of the year this past Saturday, our city held its local Christmas parade and I had the pleasure of accompanying my eldest daughter to a local performance of the Nutcracker.

    I made a huge dent in my shopping this weekend too, spending hours agonizing over gifts that hopefully will be appreciated but, honestly, are just as likely to be disappointing in some regard to the recipients. For me, shopping is kind of a fun end in itself. I like to see what is out there for sale, imagine how I or someone on my gift list would use a particular object, and delight in a good bargain. My husband is the polar opposite. He shops with a mission and a list. In and out in five minutes is perfect for him (unless it is the Apple store, the Lego store, or a good bookstore). We have learned to compromise on our shopping expeditions. We try to pick shopping destinations where there is a good “hang-out” spot for him to read or surf the web while I am let loose in a store with my girls.

    Holiday shopping is stressful for many people. For some, the financial stress of trying to purchase things for others when one is having difficulty meeting one’s own basic needs is unwanted. For most, the stress of realizing that you don’t know your friends or relatives well enough to select a good gift is the biggest problem. As I was thinking about all these issues, I was reminded of a book I heard mentioned a few years back and decided to give it a read.

    Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas by Bill McKibben is a quick, non-stressful 92 page read about the history of Christmas and suggestions for how to change the current celebration of Christmas based on ideas popular in the 1840’s to better fit the needs of modern day life.

    “I have no ready-made set of directions for how to have a “proper” simple holiday, only the notion . . . that setting a limit on how much you spend may help. . . The goal, however, is . . . to have as much fun as possible.”

    –Bill McKibben, Hundred Dollar Holiday

    There are three sections to the book. The first is a fascinating, quick history of Christmas, from Saturnalia to the commercial shopping extravaganza of the present. The second section examines how our needs as people have changed since the 1840’s and why the traditions of the 1840’s don’t address those needs. The last section provides some brief examples of alternative or handmade gift-giving and celebration strategies.

    While the book is obviously religiously oriented, the religious themes are relatively subtle. The book is not so jam-packed with Christianity that someone from a different religious tradition or an atheist cannot appreciate its insight. Mr. McKibben packs an impressive amount of research into the book and he weaves interesting tidbits of history, environmentalism and economics into his discussion.

    The book itself makes a great gift. I purchased my copy used and I believe I have the first printing edition of the book, which comes with a beautiful brown paper dustjacket with gold leaf accents. The Acknowledgements note that the covers for the first printing were made “on a century-old hand-fed press that has been converted to use solar power . . . each copy is, in some sense, an original piece of handwork.”

    Some of my favorite quotes from the book are:

    “[T]he point is not to stop giving; the point is to give things that matter.”

    “A hundred dollars spent on soup for hungry people goes into the economy as surely as a hundred dollars spent on Sport Utility Vehicle Barbie.”

    “Since we live with relative abandon year-round, it’s no wonder that the abandon of Christmas doesn’t excite us . . . We are- in nearly every sense of the word-stuffed. Saturated. Trying to cram in a little more on December 25 seems kind of pointless.”

    “[T]ime is in many ways our most valued commodity . . . . Our strategy with Christmas, then, has gone slightly awry. We’ve gotten used to spending more money to make it special. But if money’s no longer as valuable as time, we’re offering each other a devalued currency.”

    If you need some other more recent voices in support of the “less is more” Christmas, check out the following websites:

    I like the concept of Hundred Dollar Holiday and I think that this year in particular with all of the bargain sales abounding, you can easily give great gifts for not much money, whether handmade or store bought.  Unfortunately, the shopping train left the station months ago in our families and going back now and asking for a $100 total limit is not going to happen. It might be a good challenge for next year, though. We’ll have to take a poll this year and see.

    I hope that Hundred Dollar Holiday challenges your holiday thinking a bit whether you support the concept or not. You can easily apply the concept yourself when visiting your favorite blogs. A comment costs you nothing but time and is a treasured present indeed.  😉

    WIshing you a great week!

     Posted by on December 7, 2009 Ruly Bookshelf Tagged with: , , , , , , ,