An Ode to the Ugly Christmas Sweater
A humble origin as a niche but classy fashion trend. A legacy of bad puns and gaudy graphics.
Written by: Cara Robbins
Ah, the ugly Christmas sweater. Every year November rolls around in America, the ugly sweater effortlessly proves its dominance over holiday pop culture. Yet, despite its chokehold over every department store and holiday party, these strange sweaters seemingly popped out of nowhere. Why are they so important to the holiday season? Where did they come from? What is their fascinating history?
Ugly Christmas sweaters have their roots in the culture of post-World War II America. After surfacing from the war relatively unscathed and with a surplus of money, America dove into an era of modernization and mass consumerism — and this attitude applied doubly to the Christmas season. In fact, it’s this time period that led to a renaissance of American holiday culture. Many beloved Christmas songs, books and films arose as a direct result of this era, including “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” And to top it all off, a new fashion trend sprouted around something known as “Jingle Bell Sweaters.”
Nothing connects people more than humiliating a fictional character for their poor sense of fashion.
These sweaters, notably, were not designed with the intention of being ugly. Often, they were two or three-toned sweaters depicting an artistic winter scene or a festive pattern — and, in a shocking and egregious display of false advertising, rarely incorporated actual jingle bells. Though they did have a noticeable presence in pop culture and media, they never became a largely recognized or celebrated staple of the holiday season — probably due to the sheer paradox of their existence.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that these sweaters degraded (or perhaps evolved) into their ugly yet massively popular form that we know and love them for today. As surprising as it may seem, it was actually the bizarrely patterned sweaters depicted in “The Cosby Show” that popularized ugly Christmas sweaters in the media … a fact that honestly aged like milk. Thankfully, the trend of the ugly Christmas sweater does not rest solely on the back of someone like Bill Cosby.
It is truly the golden age of the ugly Christmas sweater, and for that, we should rejoice.
Up until the debut of the 2001 movie “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” ugly Christmas sweaters were often seen on sitcoms during the Christmas season but were rarely worn by the general public. As a matter of fact, the trend nearly died out in the 1990s — that is, until Mark Darcy, the romantic interest of “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” wore an astoundingly ugly sweater depicting a cartoonishly ridiculous reindeer face. In a true display of the core of human nature, pop culture went absolutely wild with roasting the outfit.
And thus, the era of the Ugly Christmas Sweater for the People began. The 2000s ushered in a beautiful decade of ugly Christmas sweater parties, ugly Christmas sweater contests, and department stores filled with rows and rows of ugly Christmas sweaters, each one more audacious and obnoxious than the last. The holiday season, after all, is about the connection all people have with each other. And nothing connects people more than humiliating a fictional character for their poor sense of fashion.
Since then, the power that ugly Christmas sweaters hold over American society has only grown stronger. Today, their designs grow bolder with each passing year. You can find an ugly sweater for just about any movie, TV show or music artist. It is truly the golden age of the ugly Christmas sweater, and for that, we should rejoice.
A Salute to America’s Favorites
If learning about the history of the ugly Christmas sweater has left you feeling awe-inspired and struck with wonder, don’t fear — you are not alone. It can be shocking to learn of the secret yet robust history of these humble yet bombastic Christmas wonders. So, to wrap up this journey into Christmases past and present, let’s revel in that wonder and reflect on some of the most memorable genres of ugly Christmas sweaters.
1. Light-up Christmas Sweaters
Just because these sweaters have to be ugly doesn’t mean they can’t be dazzling. There’s something truly admirable about anyone who is so dedicated to the Christmas spirit that they’re willing to pack AA batteries with them to any party they attend. You, brave citizens, are the true heroes of Christmas, and your sweaters bring joy to us all.
2. Weird Christmas Animals Doing Weird Christmas Things
America goes wild for cute animals. And cute animals are always cuter when they’re doing Christmas-y things. But there’s something about the culture around ugly Christmas sweaters that just invites a whole other wonderfully weird element to the cute Christmas. Sure, you can always find cats, dogs, reindeer, penguins, and all sorts of classic animals on ugly Christmas sweaters — as there should be. The classics are always phenomenal. But how can we ever forget about ugly Christmas sweaters that depict some off-beat creatures: llamas, crabs, unicorns, dinosaurs and more. And they’re always delightfully dressed in their Christmas best.
3. Raunchy Christmas Sweaters
These sweaters are controversial. But, to be fair, ugly Christmas sweaters are meant to challenge the norm — and their entire point is to make people uncomfortable. Some people take this challenge to the next level. Whether depicting a Christmas-y sexual innuendo or displaying some edgy humor, you (and your sweater, probably) have balls.
4. Fandom Christmas Sweaters
Star Wars. Marvel. Harry Potter. Game of Thrones. There’s something about ugly Christmas sweaters that just make them the perfect medium for geeking out. Who doesn’t love seeing their favorite character decorating a Christmas tree? Ugly Christmas sweaters make Christmas all the more special when they have sentimental value.
Whether you have a closet full of ugly Christmas sweaters or not a single one to your name, hopefully this brief homage to their history has changed your respect for these bizarre holiday vestments for the better. And when you sit down this Christmas with your favorite, most ugliest Christmas sweater, make sure to take a moment to reflect in silent amazement at how far this unconventional tradition has come.