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In defense of ugly Christmas sweaters

Good Morning America's annual ugly sweater party.
Good Morning America's annual ugly sweater party.
Ida Mae Astute/Disney ABC Television Group
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

A few Christmases ago, in a small Nebraska town a hundred miles from anywhere, my aunt said she'd heard that in big cities, people were wearing Christmas sweaters to parties just to make fun of them. She had heard it, she told my mother, on the Today Show. Isn't that just awful?

My sister and I, both big-city coastal residents in our 20s, silently cracked up. My aunt is a retired elementary school teacher. When we were kids, she made homemade matching Christmas sweatshirts for us, paisley Santa hats surrounded by puff paint. She learned about ugly sweater parties from morning TV. In other words, she is basically the target audience for un-ironic holiday sweaters, and we were vastly amused by her reaction to our more sophisticated traditions.

But I've now realized our reaction basically proved her point: the ugly-Christmas-sweater renaissance is a somewhat obnoxious strain of elitism. Like the sweaters themselves, the attitude is a little tacky.

How ugly Christmas sweaters became trendy

ABC ugly sweaters

The annual ugly sweater party on ABC's The Chew. (Lorenzo Bevilaqua/ABC via Getty Images)

Garish Christmas sweaters didn't used to be cool. They were the vaguely embarrassing, well-meant present from a less fashionable relative. Perhaps the most famous ugly Christmas sweater was in Bridget Jones' Diary, in 2001, where Mark Darcy sported an oversized Rudolph.

As late as 2007, the New York Times was assuring its readers that Christmas sweaters were not dreamed up by backwards, hand-knitting Midwesterners, but that "there are real, sophisticated people coming up with ideas for these things."

Then Christmas sweaters became trendy. Some say the tradition started in 2002 with a still-extant ugly sweater party in Vancouver. By 2006, according to the Times, college newspapers in Minnesota were reporting on ugly-sweater parties.

And suddenly, in 2011 or so, ugly sweaters were everywhere, ironic sweater-wearers of a younger generation commingling with sentimental sweater-wearers of an earlier one. I started wondering what had happened to my aunt's homemade sweatshirts, painstakingly appliquéd every year with puffy paint and iron-on fabric. They were more tasteful than the most outré holiday creations, but still, maybe I could find one of them in a box somewhere and wear it to a party?

The trend has now gone to extremes. Vogue now can tell you why you need an ugly sweater of your very own. (Most of the sweaters pictured are not, in fact, ugly.) There are $450 sweaters with a sequin appliqué of a puppy in a Christmas stocking. Pro and college teams sell sweatshirts with ugly-sweater interpretations of their mascots and logos. And if you're not ready to make a lifetime commitment to an ugly sweater, Rent the Runway will now rent you one for $15 and take it back after four days, lest it pollute your closet with its kitschy vibe by staying longer.

It's time to reclaim the Christmas sweater

Holiday sweaters became popular again because Vogue and Rent the Runway rediscovered what some people always knew: holiday sweaters might be a little tacky, but they're also a lot of fun.

But for years, fashionable people maligned Christmas sweaters as the attire of provincials with questionable taste. (This New York Times article from 2006 is a prime example. Note the URL: 21TACKY.) So when Christmas sweaters came to big cities, the adjective "ugly" was always attached, like an omnipresent sneering teenager at the family Christmas party:

The "ugly sweater" trend lets us have it both ways. We can indulge in the whimsy of a fun holiday sweater, while emphasizing that of course we are not the kind of people who would genuinely purchase and enjoy such a thing. Those people wear holiday sweaters to church or to Wal-Mart because they don't know any better; we wear them to ugly sweater parties serving hand-crafted cocktails because we do.

I never found the handmade sweatshirts from my childhood. And I'm glad I didn't — her handiwork, a highlight of the holidays when I was a kid, deserved better than my ironic condescension as an adult. The holidays should be a time when harmless, silly, joyful traditions can just be enjoyed, without a thin veneer of cultural superiority.

So if you want to wear a tacky, fun, joy-inducing sweater (and you should!), just wear it. You don't need a theme party with kitschy decor and ugliest sweater prizes. You don't need the protective irony of the adjective "ugly" at all. Christmas sweaters are fun. They're warm. They're comfortable. They make people smile. The rest of us should be thanking their stalwart fans for keeping the tradition alive, not giggling at them behind their backs.

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