Unraveling the Ugly Christmas Sweater

Official Ugly Christmas Sweater Day was December 15. But for those who relish the chance to wear the ugliest, most garish of prints, Christmas is one week away, which means the sweaters still have time to make themselves known. And what a statement they make! From holiday parties to school fundraisers to pub crawls, Christmas Pageants, and Nutcracker performances, the ugly Christmas sweater has become as much a tradition as secret Santa gift-giving and kisses below the mistletoe. 'Tis the season for the knitted creations. Whether it’s glitter poinsettia embellishments, flashing red and green lights, giant elves or gingerbread men you crave to display on your torso, the Ugly Christmas Sweater is the garment to wear—for the next seven days, and then no more. Stick a few extra Christmas pins on your vest for good measure, and don't forget the ornament earrings!

Commonly worn with a heavy dose of irony, Ugly Christmas sweaters are a staple of Christmas parties across the land. But where exactly did this tradition come from? Apartment Therapy unraveled the history of the UCS.

The first Ugly Christmas Sweater Party took place in Vancouver, Canada, in 2001, hosted by Jordan Birch and Chris Boyd. Chris was working at a retirement home for elderly residents, and Jordan was inspired by an especially festive sweater that belonged to his Aunt Mary. They aspired to host "a cheesy, feel-good, festive party, so the sweaters were a main ingredient of that." Thus, a cultural phenomenon was born.

Timing-wise, this origin story would explain why the creators of the 2001 film Bridget Jones' Diary had perhaps not yet received the memo that ugly sweaters were "cool." If you recall the scene where Colin Firth's character famously appeared wearing a reindeer sweater, the look was not regarded as hip.

Over the next decade, the trend grew exponentially. Searches for "ugly Christmas sweater" appear as a small blip on the Google Trends radar in 2004, the first year data is available. Yet ten years later, in 2014, the search term had exploded like a giant glitter snowflake. If the projected data is correct, this year, ugly Christmas sweaters are more popular than ever.

In 2008, the festive yet overwhelming sweaters earned a mention in the blog Stuff White People Like. In 2010, the Wall Street Journal gave them a shoutout. In 2013, the founders of Tipsy Elves appeared on the show Shark Tank, pitching an entire business devoted to selling cheesy Christmas apparel—and ugly Hanukkah sweaters.

 (Image credit:  Tipsy Elves )

(Image credit: Tipsy Elves)

In 2014, the Canadian organizers of the original Ugly Christmas Sweater Party started The Ugly Christmas Sweater Dash, billed as “the hottest and itchiest 5K ever.” The event continues to this day, and was held this year on December 2nd, along with the original Ugly Christmas Sweater party, now in its 16th year. (You can buy a ticket here.)

After a decade and a half of Ugliness, the appreciation for these sweaters speaks to our collective nostalgia for a simpler time. It’s at once a mockery and a celebration.