CHILDREN look forward to Christmas parties. Sane and sensible adults spend the rest of the year dreading them. For children, Christmas parties mean balloons, party games and Santa Claus. For many adults, they mean the courtship of social catastrophe, sexual harassment under the mistletoe and blinding hangovers the following day. The party season is purgatory. It gears up at the beginning of December with the cocktail celebrations for clients and office staff. It gathers speed between the 15th and 20th with invitations to the homes of friends - usually larger and better appointed than yours - to admire their merry festive decorations. It hurtles through the nameless horrors of a family Christmas and, after a scarcely decent interval for repentance and recrimination, crashes into the alcoholic binge of the year on December 31. It then leaves its battered victims to face the cold grey dawn of a New Year with what is likely to be a sincere wish to simply die and be done with it. Did I say purgatory? Make that hell. The Christmas party season is not there to be enjoyed - it is there to be endured, and the wise man or woman will have a survival strategy prepared well in advance of the onslaught of invitations. The problems start when responding to invitations - there are no four initials in the alphabet more sinister than RSVP. For every invitation you accept, there will be another to a different party, taking place at exactly the same time and some considerable distance on the other side of the harbour. Which do you go to? Manufacture a convincing excuse and go to neither. Attempt to attend both and you will offend your host at the first by leaving early, and at the second by arriving late. Go to only one and someone who saw you there will mention the fact to whoever was throwing the other - this is particularly true of crucial, but slightly shaky, business connections. Much better to point out loudly to your colleagues that someone has to get on with the job, even at Christmas time, and work late at the office. If you absolutely cannot get out of going, however, there are two basic survivor's approaches - sober or 'smashed'. The latter is probably the safest of the options. The sober group is almost always in the minority, and it is much easier to pretend to be interested in the opinions of people struggling hard to construct simple sentences if you are on something like the same plane of consciousness yourself. Inebriation is also an excellent excuse the next morning - and for the rest of the next year - for the kind of social gaffe you would probably have committed sober anyway. All Christmas parties are populated largely by people who remember your name and seemingly everything about you, and about whom you, conversely, remember nothing at all - not even what you did or said to them last year. Drunks are not expected to remember names, faces or past lapses of behaviour. An exchange of business cards will usually solve the non-recognition problem, and to carry a good supply of these during the party season is even more important than usual. Otherwise, how would all those fascinating people selling pension plans, life insurance, carpets and memberships of empty health clubs be able to get in touch with you? Be sure the cards carry your e-mail address so as not to miss out on the opportunity to become a multi-millionaire by forwarding an electronic chain letter to 57 of your closest personal friends. Different rules apply at your own office party. Stick to orange juice and, difficult though it may be, try to resist the temptation to spike it with vodka - that way there is slightly less risk of your throwing a brotherly arm round the boss's shoulder and explaining at length the subtly different way in which you would have handled that delicate little situation earlier in the year. Not all of your party invitations will be to do with work, of course, and the circumspection of your conduct during gatherings at the homes of friends should be determined by whether or not you ever wish to be invited back. If you do, appear punctually and properly dressed with a modest gift and a bottle of good wine. Talk politely to everyone and affect an interest in what even the dullest of the guests has to say. If, on the other hand, the invitation is an irksome annual nuisance, this is your opportunity to solve the problem for all time. At a lounge suit gathering, intended for the consumption of lukewarm mulled wine and half-defrosted mince pies with carol singing to follow, the following strategy is probably the most effective. Arrive unshaven in jeans and T shirt, empty handed and accompanied by several uninvited supernumerary guests. Of course, no one will mind. Yawn conspicuously during your conversation with the host's grandmother, and try to spill some of your drink down the hostess's front. Offer to help mop it up. After Away in a Manager, suggest spicing up proceedings with a rugby song or two. The run-up to Christmas is bad enough but, even with the day itself out of the way, the worst is yet to come. New Year's Eve is in many ways the most trying party of the year in that it usually starts early and finishes ludicrously late, with the most hardened masochists insisting on staying up for breakfast. Furthermore, hotels, restaurants and clubs charge like wounded bulls for indifferent set meals and 'methode champenoise' midnight toasts. Have none of it. Stay home, raise a glass of something good to the New Year at midnight, and retire to bed. Invite a few of the revellers round for an early lunch at, say, 11.30 the following day, admire the bags under their eyes, slap them jovially on the back of their aching heads, and force them to have another drink. Sometimes virtue is its own reward.