CHICAGO - The first workweek of December marks the unofficial start of the holiday networking season.

From now through mid-January, calendars brim with opportunities for what career-minded individuals call relationship-building: charity fund-raisers, association events, client parties and other affairs.

This festive face time serves several purposes. It reassures us of our place in the world. It reconnects us with friends and associates while satisfying our compulsion to touch base with as many of them as possible before the season ends. It is also fun.

Even the invitation serves a purpose.

"It says, 'I'm thinking of you even if you can't come,' " said Anna Marie Buchmann at RHR International Co., a Chicago management-consulting firm, who already missed one event because of a conflict. "I appreciated the fact that the person thought enough to include me."

Holiday calendars can be barometers of whether our spheres are expanding or contracting. But not to worry if your schedule is light; plenty of gatherings welcome newcomers.

Bruce Hanson, a managing director at MorganFranklin Corp., a Chicago provider of business advisory, consulting, engineering and integration services, regretted missing the Midwest Entrepreneurs' Forum networking party Monday night because he had to attend a charitable group's year-end board meeting.

His calendar is even fuller tomorrow night, when he has three events.

"Crunch time starts now," he said.

His objectives for the year-end whirl?

"If you go to a holiday party to duck out and not be noticed, that's one thing," Hanson said. "But if you continue networking like you do the rest of the year," there is no better season.

Frances Grossman, executive vice president at Shorebank Corp., of Chicago, makes the rounds at parties carrying a half-empty glass and excuses herself to go for partial refills.

"That way, I keep circulating, I never really run out of things to say, and, at the end, I've only had a glass and a half," she explained.

Events designed as mellow "thank you" gatherings for clients have a way of growing over the years. Joseph A. Williams, chairman of Chicago management consultant Target Group, said he expected 250 guests at the company's holiday party this year.

"They come because they're pretty sure there's somebody they're going to want to see," Williams said.

Target's party is one of four that David Weinstein never misses. "When you're a networker, you learn which ones are good," said Weinstein, president of the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, a nonprofit affiliate of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.

He prides himself on being able to connect people with others who can help them, a hallmark of a good networker.

Not even this year's nationwide mortgage crisis dampens the urge to connect, although it definitely can trim budgets.

Koenig & Strey Realtor Ivona Kutermankiewicz is not skimping on her annual cocktail party for clients. The Lincoln Park, Ill., agent moved it to the second week in January so more people could attend.

"I want to be the only party that week," she said. "A lot of people are in a financial crunch right now, but that's even more of a reason to do it. It's a nice way to stay in touch and to make sure these people refer you to their friends."