Ugly Christmas sweaters have become the stuff of folklore. Hailing from the UK, where they are known as ‘Christmas jumpers’, the US later seized the trend and ran with it. In fact, the 20th of December is now recognised as the official Ugly Christmas Sweater Day.
This not-so-fashionable item has inspired equal parts of laughter and humiliation for decades. This pre-Christmas event encourages everyone to don their ugliest sweater and celebrate this global anti-fashion movement.
But how did ugly Christmas sweaters come about, and more importantly, how do you make your own custom ugly Christmas sweater? Read on for fascinating insights into this unusual Christmas tradition.
How the Ugly Christmas Sweater phenomenon started
Over 2000 years ago, a couple suffered terribly thanks to the inconvenient last-minute cancellation of an AirBnb booking. Having unwisely chosen to leave for their trip right after work and then been heavily delayed by holiday traffic, they arrived at their destination hours later than planned. To make matters worse, the arrival of their first child was imminent.
“I told you to confirm the room!” said Mary angrily to Joseph, who knew he had to make amends. He hastily Googled ‘Last minute accommodation Bethlehem’ and found a surprisingly cheap farm stay. “It will be so great!” he enthused to his partner.
Unfortunately, Mary’s waters had just broken. She knew booking a holiday so close to her baby’s due date was a bad idea. They checked into the ‘room’, which certainly brought them up close and personal with barnyard animals.
“I’m freezing!” yelled Mary, “The heating isn’t working!”
Panicking, Joseph left Mary in the company of three adjunct associate professors who were staying in the stable/room next door. He ran to find something warm, but which would also hide the post-baby tum.
All poor Joseph could find was a single knitwear shop. Banging on the door, he shouted “Please! I must have a sweater…”
And the rest is history!
Ok, ok, that’s not quite how the story goes. (AirBnb would never stuff up that badly).
The truth is the absolute origin of the custom ugly Christmas sweater is unclear. It seems that as a genuine fashion trend, Christmas-themed sweaters emerged in the 1950s. Images of wholesome celebrities enjoying carols by the fire surfaced at a time when the at-home Christmas celebrity photoshoot was very popular. The sweaters were in-keeping with the season.
Christmas sweater popularity ebbed and flowed over the next 20 years before having a revival in the 1980s. At this time, oversized jumpers were huge (literally and figuratively). This trend may account for the popularity.
It is believed the ugly Christmas sweater made one of its first appearances on film in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. The Griswald family were seen dressed in bulky jumpers in the 1989 movie. These movies, starring Chevy Chase, were a hit for their tongue-in-cheek depiction of a wholesome but average American family.
After big jumpers fell out of fashion, the idea of the ‘Ugly Christmas Sweater’ grew. It was perhaps the movie Bridget Jones’ Diary which cemented the movement. An early scene has love-interest Mr Darcy wearing a turtle-necked green number with a bold cartoon reindeer. Hardly attractive!
According to complex.com, “The authors of “Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book: The Definitive Guide to Getting Your Ugly On” claim to have traced the origins of the now widespread Ugly Christmas Sweater Day party tradition to its roots in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The book says two men named Chris Boyd and Jordan Birch are responsible for the first-ever ugly Christmas sweater party, which took place at the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver in 2002.
Speaking with The Rush on Shaw TV, the ‘godfathers’ of the tradition say they set out to organise “a cheesy, feel-good, festive party, and the sweaters were a main ingredient of that.” Little did they know their minor tongue-in-cheek event would evolve into such a cultural phenomenon, because you know not wearing an ugly Christmas sweater is the major party foul of the holiday season.”
What makes an ugly Christmas sweater?
All or some of the following factors will put your sweater into the ‘Ugly Christmas’ category. Don’t be afraid to push the boundaries of creativity.
Bulky: Slim fit is not really ‘ugly’ enough. Look for an oversized jumper. The bigger the better and it should be uncomfortably warm to wear, especially in Australia.
Knitted: Ideally, your sweater will be knitted or crocheted. If your mother, grandmother or aunt were responsible for its creation, all the better.
Christmas colours: Red and green are the traditional hues of the season. Splashes of white, silver and gold are also acceptable. Ideally, your sweater will incorporate several different tones.
On the other hand, a single Christmas symbol also works. Think Mr Darcy’s reindeer or go for a giant snowman.
Itchy: Warm? Yes. Itchy? Probably. The anti-fashion item isn’t the most comfortable thing in your wardrobe.
Home made: You can buy Christmas sweaters from a lot of different outlets but you get extra points for DIY. The ‘ugly’ nature of the category means you don’t have to be an excellent clothes-maker!
Humour: Puns, inappropriate designs and bad spelling may feature in your Christmas sweater. For example: ‘Sleigh my name’, a cat and the phrase ‘Meowy Christmas’, or a sheep and the saying ‘Fleece Navidad’. Ha-ha… groan.
Inappropriateness: Lately, Ugly Christmas Sweater Day has morphed into Inappropriate Christmas Sweater Day. Featuring tasteless images of Christ, sexual innuendo or ribald slogans pokes more fun at the season.
Celebrity Ugly Sweater fans
Now fallen from grace, comedian Bill Cosby is regarded as a pioneer of the ugly sweater. In the 1980s, he wore bulky patterned sweaters without a hint of irony.
There is even a picture of Princess Diana alongside Prince Charles in the 1980s. She has on a multi-coloured sweater, complete with reindeer (or are they llamas?).
However, this bends the rules by having a slim fit. Also, Diana looks quite charming.
More recently, Hillary Clinton was photographed in a less-than-flattering red and green number, complete with matching earrings.
These days, you will see many celebrities in ugly sweaters. It is hard to tell if they are being serious or silly. Take a look online for shots of Kanye, Miley Cyrus, Snoop Dogg (in Coogi, no less), Madonna, Ariana Grande and the boys from One Direction.
Best Ugly Christmas Sweaters on the big and small screen
Hollywood loves an Ugly Christmas Sweater almost as much as it loves a tacky Christmas movie. Mimic your favourite characters with inspiration from the following:
- Dumb and Dumber (Harry and Lloyd’s hilarious roadtrip movie, starring Jim Carrey)
- Tim Allen goes all out as the big guy himself in The Santa Clause movies (keep an eye out for the Coogi sweater)
- Will Ferrell and John C Reilly don’t hold back in Step Brothers
- Lily and Marshall team up to be two halves of a reindeer in How I Met Your Mother
- 2006’s Deck the Halls, with Matthew Broderick (these white numbers are truly awful)
- James Gandolfini in Surviving Christmas (scary and sweet at the same time)
The entire cast of Glee had some fun with Christmas sweaters as well.
Is there an Australian version of the ugly Christmas sweater?
Speaking of Coogi, this thick, multi-coloured knitwear brand could be interpreted as Australia’s answer to the ugly sweater. However, don’t knock the iconic status of this jumper.
Rapper Notorious B.I.G made Coogi ‘notorious’ during the 1990s when he rapped about it (“Livin’ better now, Coogi sweater now”). You can add to your Coogi sweater with shorts, jackets and hoodies, modelled on the website by very cool-looking dudes.
Beyond Coogi, a fun twist on the ugly sweater is the ugly sweater rashie. Rashies, or swim vests as they are also known, were created to wear in the surf. Now, many Australians pop them on at the beach or pool. They are a way to stay protected from the sun without the need for suncream.
Ugly Xmas Rashie has its own website, complete with a range for the whole family. The brand has cleverly incorporated Australian animals as well as the motifs of snowflakes and other Christmas-style patterns. You could easily mistake an Ugly Xmas Rashie for an Ugly Christmas Sweater. You may even decide to wear your rashie to Ugly Christmas Sweater Day.
If you’re a keen cyclist, pick up an ugly Christmas cycling jersey, complete with koalas.
In spite of the hot weather, you will find no shortage of ugly Christmas sweaters in Australia. Jump online to find a design you ‘like’… or hate as the case may be!
Too hot for a sweater? An ugly Christmas t-shirt will keep you cool. This dinosaur Christmas t-shirt from Spreadable is a bizarre and appropriately inappropriate take on the holiday.
Make your own sweaters for Ugly Christmas Sweater Day
Not interested in a bog-standard ugly Christmas sweater? Go all out this year and choose a custom ugly Christmas sweater.
The design you go with is up to you. One recommendation is to find something which reflects your family. A crest design, for example, or a motif which features the family dog. You definitely get extra points for getting as many family members as possible into matching jumpers on Ugly Christmas Sweater Day.
Family portraits often feature in custom ugly Christmas sweaters. At create.uglysweaters.com, you can customise an entire sweater, starting from $USD67. Choose your colour, choose your background pattern and upload your artwork or text. Have some fun with family photos.
If you don’t have time to order online, grab on old sweater from an op shop and get crafty. Cut out snowmen from felt and attach with some fabric glue. Grab tinsel and baubles from the tree and tack them on for added effect. Include flashing Christmas brooches, jingling bells and gaudy Christmas earrings to complete your ensemble.
Making new sweaters from scratch could be difficult so pick a theme for people to follow instead. Have everyone show up in gold or with a Christmas tree motif.
The great thing about a custom ugly Christmas sweater is it can be as unattractive as you like. You get bonus points for innuendo so feel free to be a little risqué (just don’t go overboard and offend Grandma).
Ugly sweater inspiration
This year, combine the latest box office blockbuster with an Ugly Christmas Sweater. Choose Darth Vader in a Santa hat for true irony.
Deadpool is another awkward sweater motif at Christmas. This R-rated character thumbs his nose at anything wholesome.
Blend pop culture with a Rolling Stones tongue or jazz up your sweater with a bow tie. Be truly bizarre with flying pigs, pizza and Santa hats or cheeky with a ‘Naughty is the new nice’ jumper from ASOS.
Host an Ugly Christmas Sweater Day bash
If you’re having an event on December 20th, don’t skip the Ugly Christmas Sweater Day theme. Add a prize for the person who comes along with the funniest or least attractive jumper on.
At your Ugly Christmas Sweater Day event, serve up all the Christmas favourites. Include gingerbread, Christmas pudding, roast vegetables and turkey as a preview for the big day itself.
Organise a Secret Santa gift exchange and add a theme like chocolate or bad taste Christmas presents. Don’t forget the decorations and Christmas tunes. Find the tackiest Christmas albums you can and have a laugh about the way this holiday has evolved.
Make sure you get everybody together for a portrait to commemorate the event. Post a pic on Instagram of you and your family in your best Christmas get up and tag Lantern Club for a chance to win (TBC).
If you don’t have plans for December 20th, join us at Lantern Club Roselands. We have plenty of dining and social options to help you enjoy the festive season.