Wait, why are we all wearing ugly Christmas sweaters? How the holiday tradition got started

Cady Stanton USA TODAY

Published 6:01 a.m. ET Dec. 24, 2021

They come out of hibernation from closets at the beginning of every holiday season. Some were purchased for the humor and are riddled with bright clashing colors and holiday messages. Others are family heirlooms or thrift-store treasures, bringing with them itchy wool and the scent of mothballs. Whatever they look like, holiday sweaters have become a staple of the winter months for use at themed parties, as caroling apparel or even as casual fits. The sweaters carry a "uniting factor," Gail DeMeyere, a textile artist, fashion historian and author of "The Sweater: A History," told USA TODAY. "It is accessible, and it is a time where people can just let go of all the things that divide us right now. What could be better than that? Something we can all agree on and have fun with," she said.

So, what's the history behind these always-festive, often-tacky tops? Holiday sweaters have Nordic origins rooted in practical wear, according to Benjamin Wild, a fashion historian and senior lecturer in contextual studies at the Manchester Fashion Institute in the United Kingdom. Designed to keep wearers warm in cold months, winter sweaters were made with a utilitarian purpose, but had an added bonus: wool is easily worked and styled, allowing for opportunities for creativity, he said. "I think there's something that is very wholesome and humble as well about using this natural material that humans have sort of dressed in throughout centuries," Wild told USA  "And as a result, it's something that can be deeply expressive."

 

Early holiday motifs in knitwear, such as stars or snowflakes, evolved over centuries in Europe and expanded into larger popularity during the 1900s, DeMeyere said. The first sweater using these patterns hasn't been identified, but the winter emblems have had a lengthy lifetime, she said. "Some of the motifs that we are using today started well before the Middle Ages," DeMeyere said. "It's this long chain of events, and you can't pinpoint any one thing that created what we have now, but it certainly doesn't seem to be going away."

By the 1950s, Christmas-themed sweaters, known as "Jingle Bell sweaters," began to make an appearance in the United States and Europe, and were never intended to be ugly — rather, they were seen as creative and joyful shirts to celebrate and appreciate the post-war period in a time of growing commercialization, DeMeyere said. There are also family and gift-giving elements to the original sweaters, which were often

knit without working from written patterns, DeMeyere said. "At this point in time, you're given the license to be corny and nostalgic, and reflect back on your history or your family's history and unite with an ugly Christmas sweater," she added. DeMeyere also said the apparel's popularity grew further in the following decades, such as the 1960s and 70s when singer Andy Williams wore the sweaters during his variety show Christmas specials and in the 1970s amid the revival of home knitting.

Early popularity took hold with the legitimacy provided by depictions in popular culture alongside the rise of countercultural fashion in the 1980s, according to Wild. "As a challenge or repudiation of the kind of mass saturation of all of these brands that are coming into contemporary fashions during the 1980s, what better way, I suppose, for challenging that then by having a return to something that's a little bit more authentic like knitwear?" Wild said. The holiday sweater dipped in relevance during the 1990s, but both DeMeyere and Wild say it surged in popularly at the turn of the millennium with the emergence of "Ugly Christmas Sweater Parties."

The parties spiked a demand for vintage sweaters with Christmas images and patterns, often with the goal of finding the most outrageous item to bring to an event. Brian Miller bought the UglyChristmasSweaterParty.com domain in 2006 and listed some sweaters he and his friends discovered at a nearby thrift store — a move he said started as a "joke." The joke quickly exploded into a "legitimate," full-time business, he said. Miller and his business partners at the time, Adam Paulson and Kevin Wool, wrote a book on holiday sweaters, "The Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book: The Definitive Guide to Getting Your Ugly On," featuring a history of ugly sweater parties and pages of their favorite sweaters

through the years.

The sweater industry recently has turned away from vintage tops to newer, manufactured items, Miller said. Vintage sweaters are inefficient due to their unique sizing, weight and quality, he said. Plus, acquiring those sweaters is tougher when demand is high, he added. Miller said his website used to carry more than 20,000 unique items. These days, the store has less than 500. Miller said his company saw a boom in the creation of sports team-related sweaters, which are the websites No. 2 bestseller.

 

Other stores, meanwhile, have jumped on pop culture trends or political jokes year-to-year. The pandemic and other of-the-moment challenges had an impact on sales in 2020, according to Miller. Sales for UglyChristmasSweaterParty.com this year from Halloween to mid-December are up 256% compared to 2020, according to Miller, with COVID-19 concerns and smaller gatherings significantly impacting 2020 sales. 

 

The sustained popularity of the sweater is rooted in its lightheartedness, Miller said. Wild agreed, but added there's something deeper that has kept the sweaters from fading over the years. It's about more than just laughter, he said. "It is so frequently presented as being exceptional, but I think it, in some ways, is the

exception that proves the rule, the rule being that we all derive comfort and meaning and a sense of place through what we wear," Wild said. He added: "The Christmas jumper, through its ridiculousness, through its garishness and ugliness, demonstrates that just, actually, so beautifully."