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It's the most wonderful time of the year—but it might not feel like it if you're dreading your office holiday party.

The end-of-the-year shindig is rife with potential missteps, from forgetting names of key people to overindulging at the punch bowl. Luckily, it's possible to have some fun and stay professional at the same time—and even transform the party into a useful networking event.

Here are a some essential tips to get you through the evening:

Check with HR before you bring a guest

If your party is being held at a restaurant or other venue that charges per head, your company may not be fronting the cost for a plus-one. Before you invite your spouse or children along, be sure to check with your boss or human resources that it's OK to bring a guest along to the festivities, says Alexandra Levit, a careers consultant and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can't Afford to Believe.

Do some research before the party

If there are senior executives you don't normally interact with or employees coming in from out of town for the party, do a little poking around on your company website to brush up on names and titles. Be neutral during introductions in case you've already met the person before (and don't remember); you don't want anyone to feel slighted. And be gracious to your boss' spouse if he or she is in attendance; word of your behavior will likely go straight back to your supervisor.

Come prepared with conversation pieces

The night is bound to be filled with socializing with people you may not know very well, or at all. If you're naturally shy, come to the party armed with a few neutral conversation pieces, like asking about someone's role at the company or what their holiday plans are. Try to branch out from your close office buddies and also chat with people at the company that you don't normally interact with around the office. The party could also be a great opportunity to network with your boss and other senior members of the company. However, be sure to keep your conversation light and don't monopolize their time. It's great to tell them about a project you're working on, but it's definitely not the moment to ask for a raise or a promotion.

Pay attention to when you arrive (and when you leave)

You don't want to be the first person at the holiday party, especially if it's held immediately after work. Try to arrive 20 or 30 minutes after the official start time, when the party is already in full swing. "Sprinting out of the office so you can be the first one at the event might send several negative messages, including that you aren’t that busy at work, or that you can’t wait to get to the booze," Levit said. Similarly, make sure you take your leave at an appropriate hour, before only straglers remain. Since nearly all holiday party scandals occur as the event is winding to a close, or in the after hours, your professional reputation will thank you for taking your leave in a timely manner.

Set a limit on drinks

You don't want to be the person everyone is talking about at work on Monday morning. Be sure to set a reasonable limit for yourself on alcoholic beverages at the party, if you choose to drink at all. Try to eat a light dinner before you attend, not only so you're not drinking on an empty stomach, but also so you're not rushing to the buffet table and overloading your plate as soon as you arrive.

Be gracious during the toasts

If you're a top performer at your company, you may be honored in a toast the party. If so, graciously acknowledge the honor, but don't drink to yourself—and be sure to thank the person who recognized you. In general, make sure you're staying engaged during the toasts; don't make any side comments to your coworkers while the company president is speaking. "Someone is bound to notice this, and you won’t look good," Levit advises.

Follow up after

Try to find the organizers of the party before you leave and thank them for putting on an enjoyable event. It also doesn't hurt to follow up in a thank-you email. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it will also make you stand out from the many employees who likely won't thank the people who worked hard to make the party possible.