We’ve all been there, waking up early on Christmas morning, begging our parents to get out of bed, rushing downstairs to open the presents underneath the Christmas tree. And mixed in with the trucks and dolls and video games is a handmade sweater. Chunky. Heavy. Itchy. It’s what every kid dreads — the Christmas sweater!
So why is it that the Christmas sweater has become a celebrated symbol of the holidays, with ugly Christmas sweater parties, an entire national holiday dedicated to them, and stores that sell ONLY Christmas sweaters?
Let’s look a little more into their history and the role they play in our culture today.
The History of Christmas Sweaters
Christmas sweaters have existed in some format since the late 19th century, when they were hand-knit and worn around the holidays for warmth. They were first sold to the masses as “jingle bell sweaters”, named after the company that sold them and, of course, jingle bells themselves.
But Bill Cosby was really the pioneer of the traditional “ugly Christmas sweater” as we know it today! His character on the Cosby Show, Cliff Huxtable, often wore a wooly, thick pullover sweater with questionable mixes of colors and patterns. This, in the 80’s, led to the resurgence of sweaters. They became associated with family, home, and the warmth of Christmas and were considered stylish, not ironic at all.
Clark Griswold, in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, also helped resurrect the trend with the Christmas sweater that he wore. Sweaters became fashion for goofy, silly, traditional dads.
But, after a while, people began to view them as unstylish and ugly. The trend died, which is common for the cyclical fashion industry. It wasn't until 2001 when Colin Firth wore a reindeer-adorned jumper in Bridget Jones Diary that the idea of the Christmas sweater was brought back into the public eye.
The real start of the resurgence, however, began in 2002. Two Canadian men named Jordan Birch and Chris Boyd, had the idea (inspired by their aunt’s Christmas sweaters) to throw an ugly sweater party to raise money for a cancer-stricken friend. The first year, their party was sparsely attended, but it quickly took off! After becoming an annual event, their parties alone raised more then $100,000 for the Make a Wish foundation. And, soon, ugly Christmas sweater parties started popping up all over Canada and the United States!
By 2007, Google searches for “ugly Christmas sweater” had surged. The sweater had become mainstream!
And, of course, this is demonstrated in many ways. Each year, there are parties all over the world, where people show up in the ugliest Christmas sweaters that they can find. Of course, vintage stores reap the benefits of this – they have lots of vintage or unwanted sweaters perfect for the occasion! But many people also borrow some from their parents, grandparents, or other family members, wanting to make an ironic fashion statement. Even high-end stores sell ugly Christmas sweaters – Nordstrom has one on sale for $600!
Beyond the parties, Christmas sweaters have also become an icon. Jimmy Fallon does a special each year called “The 12 Days of Christmas Sweaters”, where he gives one audience member an ugly Christmas sweater each show for 12 days. Check out a video of the segment below!
Inspired by the original Ugly Christmas Sweater party, Vancouver hosts the Ugly Christmas Sweater Dash each and every year to raise money for the Make a Wish Foundation. Runners show up for the 5km run wearing an ugly Christmas sweater and then enjoy holiday music, craft beers, and entertainment.
And, in 2011, Christmas sweaters finally earned their own day. December 21st is officially National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day. This national day is sponsored by Tipsy Elves, which was built entirely on selling ugly Christmas sweaters to the masses – a clear sign that the sweaters have become a holiday staple.
Fun Fact: Between 2012 and 2015, online searches for “ugly sweaters” grew by 200%.
Types of Ugly Christmas Sweaters
So what exactly makes a Christmas sweater ugly? Often, it has a vintage style, with thick wool and not-so-pretty color combinations. In a way, they’re designed to be ironic nods to traditional sweaters of previous decades.
Many people take a plain or simple Christmas sweater and make it ugly themselves. There are many ways to do this – add bells, ribbons, Christmas bows, tinsel, beads, or ornaments. Some even add battery-powered strings of lights to their sweaters to look like a walking Christmas tree!
Others use Christmas sweaters to show off their interests. Movie-themed sweaters are very popular (Star Wars, Superman, Harry Potter) along with hobby sweaters (hunting, golfing, video games, sports).
Then, of course, there’s traditional Christmas imagery (gingerbread men, The Grinch, reindeer, Santa). Many times, those types of designs include puns (like a Christmas sheep that says “Fleece Navidad”) or pop culture references (like song lyrics).
Fun Fact: Lawrence, Kansas holds the world record for the most holiday sweaters worn in one place, when 3,473 people wore them to a basketball game.
So after all the years of dreading receiving a sweater on Christmas morning, they’ve become popular again, but in a completely new, ironic way! Now, they’re a great symbol of fun an enjoyment, another way to celebrate the holidays with friends.