Holiday Cheer Sees Cutbacks

Six fewer poinsettia will grace the winged feet of a forlorn Hermes in Gordon Hall this year, as the Medical School’s staffers look to ring in the holidays with some year-end cheer.

Stripped of its usual floral retinue, the messenger of the Greek gods seems to bear some sobering news: pressed by an unprecedented financial crisis, formerly lavish traditions will be giving way to a frugal conservatism as Harvard’s party planners across face tighter budget constraints this year.

While administrators look to cope with an endowment savaged by losses, schools across the University are doing their part by whittling the allotment for holiday revelry down to less than half its former size—though some are more forthcoming than others about the extent of the cuts.

At the Medical School, there will be no chocolate fountain gurgling in decadence. No waitstaff making the rounds with sliver platters of shrimp hors d’oeuvres and cheese cubes of international origin. No booze either.

Instead, Medical School Dean Jeffrey S. Flier has invited the staff to gather three days before Christmas at 8:30 A.M. to share a two-hour breakfast of coffee, bagel, and collegial spirit. Small juniper berry pots will be placed on the refreshment tables. Last year’s floral arrangements would have dwarfed the breakfast pastries.

In an e-mail fringed with Crimson font coloring and holiday banners, Flier prefaced his invitation to the “more conservative holiday celebration” with a pointed reference to the economic climate.

And in tune with the season’s giving spirit, the Medical School will also be running a non-perishable food drive for the nonprofit Greater Boston Food Bank. Flier added in the invitation that he intends to leave a box outside his office until Friday for collection purposes.

Charged with planning a frugal gathering for 500 expected attendees, Margaret Solon, director of administration, said that she slashed the holiday party budget by a brutal 75 percent.

“It used to be quite elegant,” Solon paused, reminiscing about the “really lovely hors d’oeuvres” and “fancy deserts” from last year.

“But people can come together over coffee, you know,” Solon reasoned.


A twenty-minute shuttle ride from the University’s Longwood Medical Area, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the College are throwing a joint party in the Faculty Room in University Hall. Family and friends are not invited. The Offices of the President and the Provost will no longer be hosting a holiday meal, just a reception. Harvard Kennedy School scaled back on menu options.

And Harvard Divinity School not only canceled the champagne reception for faculty and staff but also shortened the holiday dinner and luncheon by an hour each.

“HDS has researched the most cost-effective compostable vendors for the food utensils and plates,” Divinity School spokesman Johnathan G. Beasley said.


But while these schools have taken a hatchet to their budget, others—such as the Law School and the Business School—have been less ambitious about trimming the fat.

At the Law School event, requests from mildly intoxicated guests hoping for one more drink will not be accommodated, as staff will be monitoring the open bar to ensure that it closes on time. Law school employees and their families will approach the sushi, pasta, meat, and desert stations by themselves this year, eliminating the need for waitstaff to pass around bite-sized food. ”Hip Treatment”—the band usually invited to perform at the holiday party—was also cut.

Its replacement? A CD player.

“I feel that we’re having a very modest party,” said Diane M. Long, executive assistant to the dean for administration. “I’m hoping that the party is as festive as it has been in the past, but I want people to notice that we’ve made a cut.”

The face painter who made the multicolored balloon animals at last year’s Law School party may be missed, but the kids can busy themselves with inexpensive cookie decorating, Long said. And they will still receive the gift bags purchased during an after-Christmas shopping spree when everything was “deeply discounted,” Long said.

“I know the HLS party has always been quite an event,” said Mark C. Webster, a former Law School employee currently working at the Divinity School who crashed the party last year. “It’s pretty opulent by Harvard standards.”

Nor is the party at the Harvard Business School a shabby affair. Last year’s shindig featured holiday decor anchored by a reindeer ice sculpture, according to Elizabeth Sweeny, a faculty assistant at the Business School.

“I remember thinking initially, that’s like a pretty plastic thing, and oh, wait, no, actually, that’s made of ice,” Sweeny laughed, recalling the moment when she realized that plastic would not be melting under the lights.

Even with the financial crisis growing hotter, a reappearance for the reindeer does not appear to be out of the question. Pressed on what exactly had been cut from this year’s party, Business School spokesman Brian Kenny repeatedly refused to cite specific examples of belt-tightening measures.

“This isn’t a competition between schools to see who can cut back the most,” Kenny said.

—Christian B. Flow, Athena Y. Jiang, and Nini S. Moorhead contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer June Q. Wu can be reached at