It happens every December before dinner parties and cocktail events. My husband rummages deep in the dresser, pushing sweaters around like piles of autumn leaves until he triumphantly emerges with the knitwear he’s been looking for: the legendary item, the ugly Christmas sweater.
Not that this is actually an ugly Christmas sweater. It’s actually (and in honor of our interfaith association) an ugly Christmukkah sweater, one knitted from particularly ugly shades of acrylic and featuring Rudolph with a menorah instead of antlers. A menorah that lights up with the push of a button. Every time I see it, I can’t help but roll my eyes and laugh.
These days, the ugly Christmas sweater is a subgenre of knitting and an art form in itself: transcendent, laughably ironic; frosted with tinsel, sparkles, snowmen and other Santa clichés; the gift of a giggle to us all. It’s an expression of taste, so bad it’s amazing, and never more necessary than at a busy time (in the year, in the story) when emotions run high.
That’s why the ugly Christmas sweater has survived—and actually thrived—for decades. “The jingle bell sweater” first appeared on store shelves in the 1950s, an early harbinger of the coming commercialized holiday season. But in a sartorial evolution of a very peculiar kind, the sweater rose above the ka-Ching nature of its origins to become a gesture of faith.
Although jingle bell sweaters in their first incarnations most closely resembled Nordic-lite, by the 1980s these relatively tasteful snowflakes and reindeer had morphed into high-pop culture kitsch, thanks in part to “The Cosby Show,” in which Bill Cosby’s Cliff Huxtable risked everything when it came to garish knitting.
His sweaters were only topped by the Griswold family sweaters in 1989’s “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” which starred not only Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, but a whole collection of eye-catching holiday yarns. Colin Firth gave the outfit a whole other frisson when he grimaced through his cartoon reindeer knit as Mark Darcy in “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” and in 2002 the official Ugly Christmas Sweater party was born — the brainchild of two Canadians, according to “The Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book: The Definitive Guide to Getting Your Ugly On.”
Social media gave the trend new momentum and ultimately led to it Jimmy Fallon’s “12 Days of Christmas Sweaters,” not to mention the 53 different Ugly Christmas sweaters offered on Amazon, thousands of Ugly Christmas sweaters on Etsy as well as Poshmark (all those ugly Christmas sweaters go somewhere) and DIY guides by companies like Woolmark. There are Ugly Christmas sweater spinoffs such as coloring books, children’s booksand even gingerbread men. And, of course, workplace Ugly Christmas Sweater contests (The New York Times has one of those).
Having judged such a competition, however, I think it’s fair to say that in their ability to illuminate the mood of any given moment; in their pure expression of human frivolity and as a reminder that while life is serious, clothes can be fun, most ugly Christmas sweaters are really – well, beautiful.