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October 17, 2023

The Story Behind the Ugly Christmas Sweater

How This Holiday Staple Became a Hit


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Illustration showing the torso of a man and a woman wearing ugly Christmas sweaters. The man is holding a mug of hot chocolate and there’s a Christmas tree in the background.

Brent Watts and João Lucas Rocha

The History of the Ugly Christmas Sweater

Some credit their Aunt Martha for starting the ugly Christmas sweater trend. You know the sweater. Brightly colored. Lots of snowflakes. An occasional LED light-up Christmas sweater highlighting Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen pulling Santa on his sleigh.

Actually, the first recorded Christmas sweater in the annals of fashion history made its debut in the 1950s, around the same time that suburbia and close-knit families were the symbols of idealism. At the time they were called “Jingle Bell Sweaters.” It’s no surprise that a cozy sweater advertising a holiday filled with family festivities and love would become a symbol for warmth and fa la la la la around the world.

Man and woman in 1950s advertisement, wearing the first Christmas sweaters.
Man and woman in 1950s advertisement, wearing the first Christmas sweaters.

For those of you old enough to remember Andy Williams, you know that he was a fan of the holiday sweater and often wore them on his TV specials. And if they were good enough for Andy Williams, they were good enough for Uncle Pete who would wear his with pride at family gatherings as he carved the turkey with one hand, with a glass of spiked eggnog in the other.

When Did The Christmas Sweater Become… Ugly?

Somewhere along the line, these Christmas sweaters fell out of favor. But in the 1980s they came back with an ironic vengeance. Perhaps it was the cynicism of the ‘80s that thumbed a nose at the “Leave it to Beaver” lifestyle of yesteryear. Shoulder pads and sky-high hair replaced the elegance of icons like Jackie Kennedy, and people were ready to don their most boundary-pushing, neon-colored clothes. This kicked the door wide open for the Christmas sweater to make a short appearance again, until it came in full-swing in the 2000s.

2001’s “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” saw character Mark Darcy (played by Colin Firth) donning a Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer sweater at a family party. According to the “Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book: The Definitive Guide to Getting Your Ugly On,” Christmas sweaters reappeared just around this time. In fact, the authors of the book are said to have hosted the first Ugly Christmas Sweater party in Vancouver, British Columbia in 2002. From here, according to Brian Miller, one of the book’s authors, this is about the time that the REAL international ugly Christmas sweater craze started.

Today, the men’s ugly Christmas sweater and women’s ugly Christmas sweater are everywhere. From celebrities to major high-end fashion designers, to local P.T.A. meetings, everyone is embracing this kitschy Christmas cheer. You can even rent them on Rent The Runway. No holiday, or holiday party is complete without an ugly Christmas sweater making an appearance. And from the giant industry it’s become, it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere any time soon!

So, this Christmas, reach into your closet and pull out your holiday best. With an ugly Christmas sweater, you can’t go wrong!