It happens every December, before dinner parties and cocktail events. My husband rummages deep in his dresser, pushing sweaters around like piles of autumn leaves, until he emerges triumphant with the piece of knitwear for which he has been searching: that legendary item, the ugly Christmas sweater.
Not that this is actually an ugly Christmas sweater. It is, in fact (and in honor of our interfaith union), an ugly Christmukkah sweater, one knit from particularly garish shades of acrylic and featuring Rudolph with a menorah instead of antlers. A menorah that, with the press of a button, lights up. 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 knitwear and an art form in itself: transcendently, ridiculously ironic; frosted with tinsel, sparkle, snowmen and other Santa-fied clichés; the gift of a giggle for us all. It is an expression of taste so bad it is great, and never more necessary than at a fraught time (in the year, in history) when emotions run high.
That’s why the ugly Christmas sweater has survived — and, indeed, flourished — for decades. The “jingle bell sweater” first appeared on store shelves in the 1950s, an early harbinger of the commercialized holiday season to come. 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.
Though in their first incarnations jingle bell sweaters looked mostly like Nordic-lite, by the 1980s those relatively tasteful snowflakes and reindeer had morphed into high-pop-culture kitsch, in part thanks to “The Cosby Show,” where Bill Cosby’s Cliff Huxtable raised all stakes when it came to garish knitwear.
His sweaters were topped only by those of the Griswold family in 1989’s “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” which starred not only Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo but an entire collection of eye-catching holiday yarns. Colin Firth gave the garment a whole different frisson when he grimaced through his cartoon reindeer knit as Mark Darcy in “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” and by 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 Jimmy Fallon’s “12 Days of Christmas Sweaters,” not to mention the 53 different ugly Christmas sweaters on offer on Amazon, thousands of Ugly Christmas sweater styles on Etsy as well as Poshmark (all those ugly Christmas sweaters have to go somewhere), and DIY guides by companies such as Woolmark. There are Ugly Christmas sweater spinoffs such as coloring books, children’s books, and even gingerbread men. And, of course, workplace Ugly Christmas Sweater competitions (The New York Times has one of those).
Having judged such a competition, however, I think it is fair to say that, in their ability to brighten the mood of any moment; in their sheer expression of human levity and as a reminder that while life is serious, clothing can be fun, most ugly Christmas sweaters are truly — well, beautiful.