As a kid, the last possible thing you wanted to find on Christmas Morning (or Christmas Eve, depending on how you celebrated) was clothing of any variety. While socks were a particularly dreaded score, there was special ire reserved for opening a present that contained any variety of Christmas sweater. A tacky, unwanted, and usually painfully uncomfortable present, this single item is responsible for more secret eye-rolls and forced “thank yous” than any other gift in the modern history of the holiday.
Then, somewhere along the way, irony and nostalgia collided. Like a Christmas miracle, the gift went from something you had to laugh at in secret to one that’s genuinely revered around the holidays. What was once worn strictly to appease whatever relative had given you the gift is now a must-have acquisition (even if only for “ugly sweater” parties).
Here’s a look at some key events in the long, sordid history of the ugly Christmas sweater.
As America was settling into its post-war suburbia phase, the commercialization of Christmas manifested itself in new and exciting ways. One of these was the now-infamous Christmas sweater. While they’d been around in some form since the late 19th century, what were then known as ‘Jingle Bell Sweaters’ were practically a required uniform for fathers of the era as they gathered their family to go caroling, opened presents on Christmas morning, or partake in some similarly idyllic, Rockwellian fantasy.
While this particular incarnation would be considered subdued by many of today’s standards, perhaps the strangest part was there wasn’t a shred of irony in these early incarnations of holiday-themed apparel. Partly because they were seen as legitimately fun and festive attire that was almost a prerequisite for holiday merriment, and partly because irony had yet to be invented.*
It would make sense that the decade that was awash in 1950s nostalgia, and its own uniquely gaudy fashion, would also be the one that elevated the Christmas sweater to new heights. Partial credit goes to The Cosby Show, where Cliff Huxtable’s notoriously repellent sweaters became like secondary characters unto themselves. Naturally, Cliff’s wardrobe would reflect the appropriate holiday imagery during the show’s Christmas-themed episodes.
Similarly, while Cousin Eddie might’ve stolen the show with his black dickie over a way-too-tight white v-neck sweater in 1989’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, it was Clark Griswold’s snowflake-adorned sweaters that helped resurrect the trend. With the aid of these pop-culture mainstays, the Christmas sweater had become synonymous with the fashion choice for goofball dads who do their best to get everyone into the holiday spirit.
It’s also worth noting that sales of Christmas sweaters around this time had reached an all-time high.
While the 90s proved to be an unremarkable era for the Christmas sweater, by the new millennium, they slowly started reemerging in the pop-culture landscape. The most notable moment of this era came when actor Colin Firth wore a reindeer-adorned “jumper” in the hit romantic comedy Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001). Though this Firthian presentation wasn’t quite enough to start a fashion revolution on its own, it did provide an unknowing hint that one was just around the corner.
Later that same year, SNL castmates Horatio Sans, Jimmy Fallon, Chris Kattan, and Tracey Morgan reminded us all of the simple joy that is brought from matching Christmas sweaters. And they created a new holiday jingle for the ages while they were at it.
With Christmas sweaters edging their way back into the fray, it was one charitable Vancouverian who’s credited with its full-fledged revival. In 2002, Jordan Birch held an ‘ugly sweater party‘ to help benefit a friend, stricken with cancer. In the years that followed, his annual soiree has raised more than $100,000 for the Make A Wish foundation, and thrust the Canadian province into the epicenter of ugly Christmas sweater-dom. It’s even spawned the Now That’s Ugly society — which includes the Ugly Christmas Sweater Dash, a 5K race an holiday event that celebrates Christmas sweaters as an important staple of the holiday season.
2010s And Beyond
Birch’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed stateside, and Christmas sweaters have transcended the hipster embrace to become a must-wear staple of the holiday season. Today, clothing manufacturers try to outdo themselves with gauche designs, while big name stores stock themselves with the garments which fly off the shelves, as shoppers clad themselves in stitched snowmen and reindeer while fully embracing the irony. There’s even a dedicated website, UglyChristmasSweater.com, which specializes in the annual novelty essential, and clocks in millions of dollars in sales over the holidays season.
The Christmas sweater has now become a major industry unto itself. Everyone from the WWE to shows like Fargo and The Walking Dead are getting in on the action, meeting the demand of those wanting to show off their fandom while throwing themselves head-first into the resurrected holiday tradition. They’ve become so popular that you can even get one with Clark Griswold — the patron saint of Christmas sweaters — emblazoned on the front.
Not content to let Hollywood have all the fun, craft-minded Christmas-lovers have taken to trying to outdo themselves by adding every possible combination of holiday decor, which has elevated this item into an art form unto itself. They’ve even gone beyond the traditional sweater — with retailers like OppoSuits riffing on the designs once confined to knitted wool by adding them to matching suits. Naturally, there’s a book on the subject, The Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book, giving readers a how-to on the perfect sweater-themed party.
It’s a far cry from the muted sighs of disappointment that these sweaters were once notorious for causing while gathered around the Christmas tree. Clark Griswold would be proud.