Ugly Christmas Sweaters, Explained

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but then so is its opposite. One person’s ugly Christmas sweater may be another person’s charming nod to the holidays.

It is also true that a better word for the spectacle you are referring to may be “kitschy holiday sweater” or “novelty holiday sweater” since (1) such knitwear is no longer limited to Christmas, and there are now all sorts of creative versions of the ugly Hanukkah sweater; and (2) most of the designs seem calculated to outdo one another in ironic garishness with the sole goal of making the viewer laugh.

This is why the ugly Christmas sweater (for want of a better term) has become such a staple for comedians, including Chevy Chase in the 1989 film “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and Jimmy Fallon, who holds an annual “12 Days of Christmas Sweaters” giveaway on “The Tonight Show.”

Laughter is, of course, a gift for all of us, as long as we are laughing with someone rather than at them. And while we can debate the moral implications of equating ugliness and humor (and honestly, what we really mean by “ugly Christmas sweater” is “bad taste” Christmas sweater, taste being an entirely subjective concept), what is not in question is that all of this has helped transform what was once a gently cheesy piece of midcentury knitwear known as a “jingle bell sweater” into a pop culture trend.

There are ugly Christmas sweater parties (and guides on how to hold them). Ugly Christmas sweater office competitions. (The Times has one of those — or did, before Covid.) Ugly Christmas sweater coloring books. Ugly Christmas sweater children’s books. Also, of course, a variety of sites and sellers that specialize in ugly Christmas sweaters. Amazon alone sells more than 50 different ones.

Which brings up the fact that there is a major glut of ugly Christmas sweaters. In fact, according to Hubbub, an environmental organization based in Britain, there are 65 million in Britain alone. Additionally, it said, one in three people under 35 buys an ugly Christmas sweater every year, and two out of five of them are worn only once during the season. And because the sweaters are often made of acrylic and adorned with various silly gewgaws, up to 95 percent of them contain plastic, meaning they can’t be recycled.

Those are not great numbers. Yet chances are the ugly Christmas sweater is here to stay, kind of like the fruitcake no one likes, and the family game of Monopoly that often ends in tears. The question is how to make the best of it.

And the answer is simple: Avoid the ugly Christmas sweater industrial complex, and do it yourself. Indeed, Woolmark is offering free D.I.Y. patterns and appliqués so people can jazz up what they already have and then de-jazz it afterward, limiting the amount of waste. Or have an ugly Christmas sweater swap party and keep what your friends have in circulation.

At the very least, use the spectacle as an excuse to explore the resale or rental market. Then you get the last laugh.

Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.