The Unlikely Appeal of the Christmas Sweater

Ugly reindeer Christmas sweater
Image credit: cottonbro from Pexels

I’ve mentioned my love of the festive season before. The entire spiel has got me hooked: I like amateur carol singing, money-grabbing Christmas albums, and overplayed festive movies. I’ll even go as far as reading any book that so much as mentions the holidays (here’s looking at you, The Corrections). And then there’s the stuff that pretty much everyone likes: the food, the decorations, the time with friends and family, and — let’s not kid ourselves here — the presents.

Occasionally, however, all of the merriment will turn a little hare-brained. There’s probably no better example of this than my youthful insistence on wearing Christmas sweaters while growing up in the subtropical reaches of the Southern Hemisphere, where the arrival of Yuletide inevitably brings with it temperatures of 30ºC or more (that’s 86 degrees if you’re from a northern region that prefers Fahrenheit). It didn’t matter, though. No amount of heat, humidity, familial pleading, or complex carbohydrate consumption could get me to remove my sweat-soaked jumper one minute prior to Boxing Day.

It didn’t help that I have a weakness for outlandish knitwear in general, which has meant that over the years I’ve made more than a few questionable pullover purchases. When I started going to thrift stores as a youth, there was nary a loud knitting pattern I wouldn’t drop my allowance on. As time went by, the same impulse was channelled into slightly more tasteful but no less eye-catching Pendletons and Cowichans. One of my most treasured items of clothing is a jersey made of an ill-matching patchwork of yarns that my mom knit during the pandemic before she was able to leave the house to replenish her wool supply. Then, just a few months ago, I succumbed in the face of a collision of two of my greatest passions — basketball and knitwear — and bought one of those Rowing Blazers x NBA crewnecks. I will do the same the first chance I get with a Ralph Lauren Polo Bear pullover. And God help me if anything from the Aimé Leon Dore knitwear section ever crosses my path…

It should therefore not surprise anyone that for a good while there I could scarcely pass a charity shop in December without buying every Christmas jumper I could carry. Over the years, I amassed every sort, from the nattier selburose kind down to gaudy 3-D models all decked out in pom-poms and googly eyes. Thus far I’ve stopped short of anything that includes flashing lights, although I steer clear of clothing with an onboard fire hazard on principle.

Snowman Christmas sweater with googly eyes
One of (too) many silly seasonal sweaters in my closet
Image is my own / All rights reserved

Now, I’m aware that for most people this will be a hard sell. Christmas sweaters, even the very nicest ones, are not stylish by any measure. There’s a reason there aren’t any pictures doing the rounds of Luciano Barbera in a snowman pullover. Festive jumpers are, in most instances, gaudy, comical, and downright ugly. And not in the ultra-hip, self-aware, Gucci-adjacent high fashion way, either. More in the Midwestern dad gearing up to carve a turkey kind of way.

So what exactly is the appeal? There’s a bunch of things one could list here: They’re fun, they’re often funny, and they bring with them a sense of excitement for the season. To put one on is to signal the arrival of the holidays and, on occasion, a chance to reflect on Christmases past. 

For me, though, perhaps the most compelling part of the holiday jumper is precisely linked to all of those negative attributes listed above. It’s a garment that abases its wearer and therein lies its appeal. Not unlike the paper crowns worn at the dinner table at the same time of year, silly knitwear is a great equaliser and means of connection. Precisely because they are silly and ugly and embarrassing, they humble us and in doing so bring us closer together. Their absurdity encourages camaraderie — a what-the-hell-are-we-all-wearing kind of unity — regardless of potential divisions like age, income, political belief, or, frankly, dress sense. The Christmas sweater offers us a jester-like ability to poke fun at ourselves and others in a manner that ultimately builds goodwill, and it does so at a time of year where finding such points of connection can be in short supply.

For all of its present-day association with the festive season, surprisingly, the ancestor of the Christmas knit had nothing to do with the holiday. Perhaps the most direct precursors to the modern-day festive jumper were the sweaters worn by Scandinavian fishermen in the late nineteenth century. These handknit jerseys featuring colourful geometric patterns grew in popularity over time and spread across Europe, gradually becoming synonymous with a host of cold-weather activities, including hiking and skiing. In this way, a humble fisherman’s garment would become synonymous with the lifestyles of the rich and famous, as Hollywood stars like Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and Lana Turner were photographed in action on the slopes of various far-flung locales. From here, the general public naturally wanted in on the action.

Vintage men skiing in patterned knitwear
Image credits: simpleinsomnia / CC BY 2.0; Rigmor Dahl Delphin / CC BY-SA 4.0

It’s not until the 1950s, however, that this style of knitwear became associated with Christmas, courtesy of some savvy marketing by a few mid-century ad men. Nascent Noel-themed knitwear began appearing in holiday commercials often enough that people started calling them ‘Jingle Bell Sweaters’. They would even become signatures for crooners like Val Doonican and Andy Williams. But these were all still test runs for the zany pullovers we have today. While manufacturing advances in the twentieth century had developed enough to allow for mass-produced garments and the use of synthetic fibres, the sweaters of the time were nevertheless simple and fairly sedate by contemporary standards.

It’s not until the 1980s that the garment became truly garish (along with so many other casualties of that particular era). Ugly Christmas sweaters (UCSs for short) hit it big thanks in large part to a profusion of goofball dads in mainstream comedies, characters like Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show.

Fast forward two decades and you’ll find another on-screen knit that has defined the place of the UCS in contemporary culture. I’m thinking, of course, of Colin Firth’s Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary, who wears a hideous reindeer-themed number to a Christmas party, only to catch the eye of our journaling heroine. Darcy’s terrible turtleneck might just be a fuzzy Rosetta Stone for all that is uncool during yule in our time. Consider as evidence the fact that that film came out in 2001 when, according to the authors Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book: The Definitive Guide to Getting Your Ugly On, the first ugly sweater party was thrown the very next year. Things simply snowballed from there.

At which point a new generation of celebrities start getting in on the game (Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Jimmy Fallon, Kevin Love, and Ozzy Osbourne, to name but a few), as well as an array of fast fashion and upmarket labels (including everyone from Topshop to Givenchy). Then, in 2012, the UK charity Save the Children launched Christmas Jumper Day, a fundraising initiative that encourages people to kit themselves out in the most mortifying knits they can manage, which has led to a new boom in Christmas-themed kitsch, including all of the tinsel-emblazoned, LED-lit, pop culture-inspired UCSs spotted at any present-day office party or family gettogether.

It’s around this time that yours truly really gets in the game and amasses enough to kit out everyone in my area code for all twelve days of Christmas. In more recent years, though, I’ve generally retired the sillier models and settled on one or two more sedate numbers in seasonally appropriate shades. Perhaps it means I’ve grown up or that my festive tastes have improved. Or maybe I just haven’t found the right one. Who knows, the perfect set of battery-powered antlers might have me revising my views on vestiary fire safety yet.

Ugly Christmas sweater with LED lights
Image credit: / Public domain

* This post may contain affiliate links. If you buy something using them, we get a small percentage of the sale at no cost to you. More info at our affiliate policy.