The other day a box arrived at my door containing three bottles of organic wine and a note.
“Try to resist opening these bottles before the event,” said the public relations group hosting what turned out to be my first contact with a virtual Christmas party.
This one involved wine tasting and my expectations were low.
Although these rallies did not exist a year ago, it is widely believed that they are terrible failures.
When the FT reported on the series of year-end bashes online, UK businesses have organized, readers have not responded well. “It looks like a complete nightmare,” said one of them. “God, I hope my business doesn’t,” said another.
To be fair, there were some events that involved virtual bingo and crown making, for reasons that escape me. In addition, many were put on staff, not strangers, and a survey just confirmed what I have always vaguely suspected: 43% of UK workers think Christmas in the office is a waste of time.
In these virtual times, the same survey found that, given the choice, most people would rather have the money to throw their own party at home.
Still, anyone invited to a task force of any sort this year is doing well, especially if they’re American. A American survey found that most companies had no plans to host a year-end party of any kind, and only 17% were planning an event online.
Anyway, having tasted the virtual party myself, I think the carp are overkill.
I had never heard of the people who suddenly invited me to their friendly Covid wine tasting, or the wine bar providing the sommelier. In another year I might have missed it.
But after nine months of working from home, the idea of doing something festive caught on.
There were a few issues to start with. It took some time to verify that the door-to-door wine delivery did not violate the FT’s corporate hospitality guidelines, drafted in a pre-Covid era. And the very night of the event, I suddenly realized I had no idea what people were wearing to a virtual Christmas party. Going through my wardrobe, I decided to go for a slightly sparkly top and a jacket that was unworn all year round. It was reckless. When it came time to connect to the Zoom call, it was immediately evident that most people had made a reasonable decision to stay with what they had at the time.
Also, I was sitting at my desk, in front of my computer, with three freshly opened bottles of wine. William Faulkner may have written with a whiskey at hand. Dorothy Parker may have said, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” But typing while drinking was new to me and strange.
Partying with a group of strangers online is also not conducive to a heated conversation. “Hi,” I didn’t say to anyone in particular as we waited for the kick-off. The seconds passed.
“How are you?” someone finally said. “I’m fine,” I say. No more silence.
“Hi!” said several people who all started talking at the same time and were impossible to understand.
At this point, I texted my other half, who was working downstairs, asking them to join me. He trotted up, poured himself a drink, but glanced horrified at the screen and stepped back.
Finally, Johnny the sommelier arrived and the tasting began. Organic or natural wine was new to me, as was Johnny’s warning that it could have a “funky farmhouse vibe.”
The drawbacks of the rally were obvious. I would have liked to chat with some of those one-on-one, but Zoom’s Q&A button is not meant for such things.
Yet when I asked people at the end what they thought, many, like me, were pleasantly surprised. A woman with a toddler said she would never go to a regular wine tasting, so the accessibility of the event was a plus. It was widely believed that not having to rush for the Tube was an advantage.
I cannot say that I see these events taking off. Like so many others in 2020, I suspect we’ll be watching them with some astonishment. But in a year of far too little joy, anything that uplifts a spirit here and there is welcome.