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Ugly sweater phenomenon promotes a tackier the merrier mantra

By Shelley Murphy

Shelley Murphy. File photo
Shelley Murphy. File photo

I embrace traditions at the holidays. They bring us closer as families, and provide some of our best seasonal memories. From the time our boys were toddlers we introduced several traditions, one of the oldest is the Advent calendar.

Truthfully, today it’s more of a family joke than treasured tradition. Numbers are my kryptonite. For years I instructed my boys to start the calendar the wrong way by beginning on number 24 instead of 1. It should’ve become obvious as they annually opened the Lego Santa on day one, instead of Christmas Eve. I still buy the Lego Advent calendar and we do it backwards every year.

A less confusing but still puzzling tradition is the ugly Christmas sweater.

Friday, December 20 marks National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day. It’s celebrated the third Friday of December and recognized in the United States, Canada and United Kingdom.

Several years ago my older son was invited to his first ugly Christmas sweater party. At the time we didn’t own one, so he visited San Clemente’s Salvation Army Thrift Store and discovered a treasure trove of sweaters.

Yesterday, he called to say he’d bought an ugly Christmas sweater at his college bookstore. I’m told it features a red embroidered football helmet interwoven with candy canes.

Ugly Christmas sweaters have become big business.

The origin of the ugly Christmas sweater is a bit more ambiguous than that of the Advent calendar. I’d like to think it was started by a clever woman who, sick of spending a month’s salary and weeks dieting to squeeze into an outfit for the office holiday party, created the alternative cozy and comfortable fashion statement.

Some say Cliff Huxtable, comedian Bill Cosby’s sitcom character, pioneered the popularity of ugly sweaters in the 1980s. Others credit comedian Chevy Chase for sporting ugly Christmas sweaters in the 1989 comedy, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Despite the popularity of the comedians’ sweaters, the fad faded in the ‘90s, but the past decade has seen a rebirth of the ugly Christmas sweater.

By the mid-2000s a surge of ugly Christmas sweater parties popped-up creating a shortage of sweaters. A trio of enterprising college kids from Indiana State University noticed this and took to the internet. They paid $75 for 50 sweaters purchased at the Goodwill, posted them on their website and the next day the sweaters sold out. Today they continue to run a booming ugly sweater business and have even written a book on the subject.

The holiday craze is a pop cultural phenomenon crossing generations carrying a singular message: the tackier the merrier.

Trendy ugly Christmas sweaters are over-sized and embellished with multicolored animations, bows, lights, sequins and designed in a festive collage-type arrangement.

Any other time of year a profound fondness for poinsettia cross-stitched pullover knitwear is considered a fashion faux pas, but in December it passes as stylish.

Tomorrow it’s probably safe to high-five the guy in line at Starbucks with jingle bells and blinking lights sewn onto his sweater. But I suggest using caution when complementing this tacky tradition during the holiday season. Someone’s felt appliqued dancing reindeer could be a cherished vintage cable-knit sweater sewn by a beloved grandmother.

Ugly sweater compliments can be risky endeavors. I equate it to complimenting a woman with a rounded belly on her pregnancy—only congratulate her at her baby shower. And only commend someone on their ugly sweater at an ugly Christmas sweater party.

The holiday sweater remains a cherished, yet perplexing tradition—just like the Advent calendar.

Shelley Murphy has lived in San Clemente with her husband and two sons for the past 14 years. She’s a freelance writer and contributor to the Picket Fence Media papers since 2006.

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