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AS the nights draw in, I am only too well aware that Christmas is around the corner and that, once more, this ancient festival will bring with it various traditions that will be enthusiastically celebrated – or at least certain rites that cannot be avoided. In particular, the annual staff night out, which nowadays seems to be obligatory for all firms, looms once more. Judging by the deluge of e-mails and glossy brochures that have been arriving unsolicited at the practice since midsummer, promoting various venues and events, organised Christmas parties are big business these days and usually come with a price tag to match.

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Not only do our staff look forward to the annual night out, they all regard it as the highlight of the year, and the female contingent continuously talk about dresses, shoes and accessories for weeks beforehand. Though, to be fair, the men can be almost just as bad.

However, just as one size never fits all, how do you pick a party that suits everyone? Arranging these things for the practice takes a fair bit of time, effort and thought, and I've recently been pondering the various factors that need consideration when organising the Christmas do. A decibel-breaking disco leaves the older staff members sidelined, trying to lip-read each other's conversations as the youngsters wiggle on the dance floor. A pub meal can seem a bit ordinary, but a formal restaurant can leave younger employees bored stiff. Something different, like a river-boat trip, might sound exciting but it can mean that, once afloat, short of diving overboard and swimming ashore, there is no escape until the boat moors at the end of the evening – this isn't much good if you've promised the babysitter that you'll be home by 11.

Yet, choosing the venue isn't the only thing that provokes prolonged discussion among the partners; it's all the other bits that need to be considered as well. Do we just invite employees, or their partners as well? Will everyone get on together? Should we simply pay for everything or suggest that people buy their own drinks? How can we arrange the on-call duty for that night? And where does our duty of care stop – do we offer to pay for taxis home at the end of the evening?

Over the years we've tried various formulae in our search for a perfect night out and, while we've generally had a good time, you can never plan for all eventualities and, with the benefit of hindsight, some lessons have been learned the hard way. There was the party when our 16-year-old Saturday girl collapsed face-first into her roast turkey after imbibing a succession of vodka shots offered by some of the other nurses, which led to an uncomfortable conversation between me and her father the next day. There was also the time that our most introverted receptionist was cajoled into meeting the others in a bar at Saturday lunchtime, with the result that she was as high as a kite by the time we assembled at 19.00; her amorous embraces were an embarrassing memory for all concerned for weeks afterwards.

Not surprisingly, it's very easy to take a bah-humbug attitude to it all and wonder if the staff really appreciate a party anyway; while the partners perhaps regard it as a thank-you to everyone for working hard that year, the employees might see it as their given right and will moan for weeks afterwards if we seem to baulk at buying yet another round of drinks. I'm just glad that Christmas comes but once a year, because trying to decide what's right is enough to give me a hangover-type headache before the party even starts.

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