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White lights on bare branches against a dark blue sky at dusk.

December holiday tips

By Dee Anne Bonebright and Julie Sweitzer

Dec. 5, 2005; updated Dec. 5, 2007

Holiday parties in December--many offices plan them. University offices celebrate the end of fall semester and look toward the start of winter. Then there's the proximity of several religious holidays. But as our workplaces become more diverse, people wonder how to celebrate in ways that respect our different religious and cultural traditions.

Celebrations are important as places where coworkers can socialize and get to know each other in informal settings. Managers need to create opportunities to thank staff for their contributions. Work flows more smoothly when successes are recognized and celebrated. Teams are strengthened and individuals are motivated when they feel their work is appreciated.

But December celebrations can cause problems if events seem to emphasize one religion or cultural tradition. If activities make some people feel excluded, they defeat team-building goals.

Finding information on religious holidays

In December, the media are inundated with references to Christmas, and the academic calendar generally accommodates Christmas by breaking before December 25. The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah and the newer cultural holiday of Kwanzaa both fall in December, and some groups celebrate the winter solstice. But Islamic holidays circulate around the year: Ramadan began in September and ended in October this year, and Eid-al-Adha falls on Dec. 20.

If your office is celebrating in December, take time to understand the significance of the various religious traditions that occur during this time. Use it as an opportunity to learn about different cultural practices.

The University's Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action has posted a Religious Holiday Calendar. Check it to avoid conflicts with major department events. You can also use it to plan department cultural awareness activities.

Major religious holidays are also identified in the student Gopher Guide, which is on sale to the public in University Bookstores on the Twin Cities campus.

"The problem is that any celebration in December tends to be about Christmas," according to Beth Zemsky, formerly the coordinator of leadership and organizational effectiveness in the Office of Human Resources. "People sometimes try to include other religious holidays, such as Hanukkah, but as a Jewish person I know that it's not a very significant holiday. Our important holy days are in September. I don't mind celebrating other people's religious holidays--I do it all the time. But just don't expect that everyone shares your religious background."

Supervisors don't know the traditions and experiences that staff members bring to the month of December. Even among Christians, approaches to Christmas differ. Some groups celebrate on a later date and a few don't recognize the holiday at all. An evangelical Christian may have misgivings about the commercialism of Christmas and not enjoy associations with Santa Claus.

December celebrations may have unintended consequences, too. Due to "seasonal creep," an event that is meant to be a seasonal celebration suddenly looks very Christmas-y when decorated with green and red.

In addition, holiday periods can be stressful for people living far from their families or going through hard times. A well-intended office party may actually cause more pain than joy for some of your colleagues.

Themes, timing, awareness, and activities

Here are some things to consider when planning office celebrations.

Remember, several smaller events throughout the year can be much more effective that one big party. We should celebrate and thank each other more than one day a year.

More tips

"Eight Tips for Handling the 'December Dilemma,'" ProGroup, a consulting firm

"Making Room for Religious Differences," Rights Stuff online newsletter, May-June 2004, Minnesota Department of Human Rights

"A party for all: Tips on celebrating year-end holidays," by Dee Anne Bonebright

Dee Anne Bonebright is a program director in Organizational Effectiveness, Office of Human Resources. Julie Sweitzer, director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action when this article was first published, is now associate to the senior vice president, Office of System Academic Administration.