Depending which side of the Atlantic Ocean you’re celebrating Christmas this year, you’ll either be wearing a Christmas sweater or a Christmas jumper. Whatever you call it, and whether you think it’s funky or ugly, there’s no doubt that it’s become an essential part of our holiday traditions. But how did it happen?
On the British side of the ocean there’s very little doubt where the popularity of the Christmas jumper began. It was the moment that Colin Firth showed up as Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones, wearing a ludicrous jumper with a reindeer on the front (in the book his jumper was just a bit ugly, there wasn’t a reindeer). It’s played for laughs, of course, but gradually it’s a joke we’ve all wanted to be the butt of.
Of course, Christmas sweaters have a much longer vintage than 2001, and the likes of Andy Williams and Bing Crosby were the kings of dodgy knitwear in their holiday specials decades before Bridget even bought her diary. Back then there was nothing ironic about it, the ugly Christmas sweater was just ugly and part of the general tackiness and kitsch of those programmes.
In the States, the festive sweater worn by Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation may not have been quite so comedic as Mr Darcy’s jumper, but it certainly helped bring that fashion sense back into the public consciousness for the early 90s. Tacky Christmas sweaters went from being something that you were given by grandparents, and reluctantly wore for as little time as possible, to being a badge of honor.
By the start of the 21st Century, this ironic take on the fashion crime accessory had become so popular that Ugly Christmas Sweater Parties were taking off in America. The concept for these quickly became a competition to see who could come up with the most awful, over-the-top sweater, preferably accessorised with lights, tinsel, decorations and all the bells and whistles. Often literally.
Two pioneers who accidentally helped take funny sweaters to the mainstream were Jessica Aceti and husband Brian Kirk, who in 2008 got a photographer friend, John Keatley, to take a picture of them for a Christmas card, dressed up as the most hideous-looking sweater-wearing weirdos. Holding a stuffed goat. "I had this idea of making an odd Christmas card and styling it with that goat," Aceti said. "I’m a hoarder of weird stuff. At the time, we just made up these characters in our mind that were these awkward ugly people, and we’ve always just loved shitty Christmas sweaters."
The photo went viral to the extent that it ended up on Reddit, then The Today Show and then Ellen. All these years later, it’s still a go-to photo to show off the awesomely awful Christmas sweaters they wore, even if some people mistook it for a genuinely awful photo of two real people, rather than the characters the couple had taken on for the shoot. They continue to make ironically bad Christmas cards, while there’s little doubt that they helped spread novelty Christmas sweaters to the mainstream media. Nowadays, anyone who’s anyone has been photographed wearing something tacky and garish and fabulously festive.
Over in the UK, the popularity has exploded in recent years to the extent that charity Save The Children started a Christmas Jumper Day in 2012, asking people across offices, schools and homes across the country to wear their tacky Christmas jumper and donate £1 to the charity. In 2014 over £4m was raised and 2015 promises to be even bigger as Christmas Jumper Day will be part of ITV’s Text Santa campaign, with money going to Macmillan Cancer Support, Make-A-Wish UK and Save The Children.
Christmas sweaters/jumpers are so popular a part of festive traditions now that it’s hard to see them going away anytime soon, no matter how many Grinch-like columnists and fashionistas wish they would. They’re even being incorporated into modern traditions like the 12 Pubs Of Christmas pub crawl that is being increasingly popular in Ireland, with ugly jumpers pretty much essential uniform for anyone taking part.
So whether you call it a Christmas sweater or a Christmas jumper, you’d better get used to them because they’ve been around a long time and won’t be going anywhere. It’s safe to say that Bridget Jones would be more horrified now to arrive at Christmas party and find her date NOT wearing a novelty jumper with a reindeer on it...