In the film classic, Desk Set, starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey, the Christmas office party is the catalyst for two shy, admiring characters to let down their inhibitions. Beneath a backdrop of fraternizing and excessive drinking, they finally declare their love for each other. The rest is movie history.

The film's portrayal of the company Christmas party is also history. Today's version is less excessive and more inclusive. It's an occasion for celebration and recognition, not just a big bash.

Following are a few tips to ensure the success of your holiday celebration.

Booking the venue * *To maximize savings, book your party on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday--Many venues offer inducements such as complimentary appetizers to groups holding their event on these less popular evenings.

* *Book your venue a year ahead--The last thing anyone wants to think about in January is next year's holiday reception. But that's exactly when most venues--be it a museum, club, or hotel function room--are booked for the following holiday season.

* *Searching for a last-minute venue? Get creative--The answer could be as simple as your own company lobby. Or, if the group is small enough, can you use one of the executives' homes? What about a local library, community center, or amusement park? With seasonal decor, these options can be just as festive as any hotel ballroom (and far less expensive).

* *If you can't get the venue you want for an evening function, consider a holiday luncheon or brunch--This is also an excellent choice if your budget is tight.

* *Don't hold your party during prime time--Catering experts say the holiday party season "officially" ends December 21. Finding space for the 23rd or 24th can be infinitely easier than in the weeks previous. Or, have you considered a post-holiday gala in early January, celebrating a new year in business?

Theme and decorating ideas * *Consider a holiday theme--If the company CEO is Scandinavian, find out how they celebrate the festivities, and what they wear and eat. You could re-create your own peach schnapps and pickled herring feast. Or, since most people wish they were in sunnier climes for winter, why not have a beach blanket, Christmas in Hawaii theme? Costumes and entertainment will be readily available and likely less expensive in the off-season. And we've all had enough of mistletoe and spiked eggnog.

* *Don't overuse the traditional red and green--Use these colors only as accents. On crisp white tablecloths, consider red and green draping or napkins. Rather than using poinsettias, which can literally stand in the way when people try to talk across the table, ask your caterer to create unique centerpieces with holly, gold ribbon, pine cones, angels, and white candles or tea lights.

* *Make your party a celebration of the senses--Frankincense, myrrh, or the smell of evergreen evoke powerful messages of the holiday season. Why not burn scented candles, add oils to tea lights, or burn holiday potpourri?

* *Determine what decorations the venue may own or have available--During the holiday season, many venues have plenty of available decor that they might loan you for free or for a minimal charge.

* *Skip the mistletoe--It's politically incorrect and practically condones behavior inappropriate among coworkers.

* *What about angels?--Angels fit the seasonal theme without spotlighting a particular religious or metaphysical belief. They're ideal for gift items or decorations.

Entertainment ideas *Select music with universal holiday appeal--It's quite acceptable to play a few traditional Christmas carols, but include other songs that represent the spirit of the season. A string quartet or a harpist creates the seasonal soft ambience such an event requires. Soothing music will also help keep the reception on a civilized keel.

*Don't wait until the last minute to book entertainment--If you do, the pickings may be slim. On short notice, contact your local university music department or consider hiring nontraditional holiday entertainment such as magicians or a fortune teller.

Make the celebration inclusive *Rethink what you call your holiday soiree--Respect all denominations and steer clear of stereotypes. Rather than calling your celebration a Christ-mas party, have an XYZ Holiday Gathering, a Sea-sonal Affair, or a Yuletide Social. To avoid the word "party" and its connotations, try: affair, get-together, soiree, gala, ball, banquet, social.

*When selecting menu items, respect cultural and religious differ-ences--Remember to order for the ever-increasing number of vegetarians. Also remember: Hindus do not eat beef, and Jewish persons and Moslems do not eat pork. Spinach or mushroom mini-quiches and vegetable and cheese trays are examples of appetizers suitable for most everyone. As an entree, low-fat turkey covers most of the bases.

*Use holiday ornaments that appeal to most denominations--Examples include a decorated tree, holly, colored lights, menorahs, evergreen boughs, and gold and silver tinsel and streamers. Avoid too much of Santa, the three wise men, the Virgin Mary, and symbols traditionally associated with a secular Christmas. The key is to respect and acknowledge all religious persuasions.

*Remember local charities--Arrange in advance to donate floral arrangements, poinsettias, or other decor to a local hospital. Ask guests to bring nonperishable food for a food bank or toys for a children's charity or hospital. Donate your unserved portions (note: not leftovers) to the needy. Two associations can assist in this endeavor: the Professional Con- vention Management Association's Network for the Needy at (205) 823-7262 and Foodchain at (800) 845-3008.

Alcohol issues *Rule # 1: Watch the alcohol--Any alcoholic beverages, including mulled wine, should be available only through a trained bartender. Limit the number of bars so people have to wait in line for drinks. Make nonalcoholic holiday beverages such as punch or hot apple cider, as well as juice, soda, and water, readily available. Don't ever announce last call. Start serving coffee an hour before the event is scheduled to end. And consider this: A party scheduled for a weeknight is less likely to get out of control if participants have to report for work the next morning. (For more information on serving alcohol at company events, see "Meeting Planning Strategies," a bimonthly column by Judy Williams, November 1997 Corporate Meetings & Incentives, page 63.)

*Arrange for transportation--Book shuttle buses, taxis, vans, etc. in advance. If you opt for designated drivers, ensure that they are clearly identified (by armband or name tag, for example) and reward them with a gift certificate or tickets to a show.

*Reserve a few rooms in a nearby hotel for anyone who might require overnight accommodations--Due to low occupancy levels, most hotels offer very low room rates over the holidays. Block a few guest rooms at a special rate and let guests know in advance.

*Be certain that your contract with your food and beverage provider states that they will assume risk of any and all potential claims--In other words, whatever they provide must meet the standard of merchantability. In essence, this means you won't get sick or injure yourself as a result of eating or drinking their provisions. If a member of your group becomes sick or is injured, you are entitled to damages. Also, your contract should include a hold-harmless clause. A typical clause should state that the provider will defend and hold harmless the event organizer (your organization), and its employees and agents, against any and all losses, damages, claims, liabilities, expenses, etc., including cost of defense caused by the food and beverage (F&B) provider provision, or sale or service of F&B.

*Last but not least, enjoy and embrace the spirit of the season. Create a gathering that celebrates all employees--and it will be one they won't soon forget.