As a teenager, in the 1980s, I received from my father, who had come home from New York, one of those so-called ugly Christmas sweaters. But I admit, I had a special affection, even an inexplicable attachment, to it. It was navy blue, crossed out with an American flag, the last star of which – the only yellow one alongside 49 white – was a shooting star. One of the stars had deer antlers. Another had a Santa Claus hat. Another was surrounded by a wreath. Another had a red scarf with white pom-poms on the points. 

It’s an understatement to say that it was not discreet. It wasn’t December 21, the official ugly Christmas sweater day, but it was winter and it was already cold enough to justify, ugly or not, that I wear this sweater. It made me happy, and at the risk of being laughed at for my weird taste, it was awesome to me. Literally. No in-joke, no cultural or nostalgic reference, no irony. It was awesome. Maybe it was just a way for me to make up for a childhood spent in war and a series of failed Christmases. That year, I bravely wore my ugly sweater from December to March, courageously embracing the odd looks and comments from those around me. 

Christmas was over, but my relationship with my sweater was made to last, and no one would tell me what to like or to despise. Looking back, I think this sweater embodied something of my “American dream”, my shapeless idea of a Hallmark and Disney-driven civilization, roaring fireplaces, snow-covered forests, my father’s love and my attachment to the freedom of expression, of which fashion and clothing are the most obvious signs.


Deep down, the story of the ugly Christmas sweater has something in common with my own: it is heavily influenced by war. It appeared in the aftermath of World War II, in the 1950s, when people were terribly hungry for parties. They were ready to buy whatever was offered to transform an environment plagued by destruction and bad memories into something wacky, “outré”, brimming with color and sonic invasions. The more outlandish and loud, the more the slightest hint of sadness was stifled. They drowned houses and public places under garlands, shimmering pines, colors, reliefs, anything that flashed, an abundance of everything, a spill of everything they had forgotten as a result of the long war. 

Christmas carols were the rhythm of this obligatory and therapeutic joy. Not a crooner from this era didn’t record his own version of Silent Night, Auld Lang Syne, Jingle Bells, White Christmas and other classics. Clothes also had to be matched with the decor, and the Nordic-style Christmas sweater that so many grandmothers lovingly knitted as a gift to soldiers to wear on Christmas day, when there was a chance for a truce, thereby became an annual tradition.


Finally, peace has set in, trade and industry have picked up again. We enter an era of optimism, luxury and overconsumption that the hippie and punk movements, marginalized, demonized as they are, fail to temper. Naive in the midst of an era that is increasingly corporate and focused on a technological future, the Christmas sweater has become “ugly”. The sweater that was the staple of big family dinners, adorned with all the usual elements, Christmas trees, pompoms, reindeer, red noses, Santa, garlands, snowmen, bows and flakes, bells, penguins, socks, complicated stitching and the rest, crossed its own icy desert. 

For years, the Christmas aesthetic was “designer” and minimalistic, the palette shifted from red-white-green-gold to chic pastels, to futuristic silver. Essentially, the way Christmas is celebrated gives the true temperature of each era and tells us about its fads and the state of its economy.


“Show a little reindeer or some Santa Claus”
And then nothing lasts, neither honors nor disgrace. TV started showing series where the characters wore weird sweaters that alone were enough to set the mood. From ugly, the knitted sweater with all its improbable additions has become a conversation piece. This is the start of the “ugly sweater” triumph: “Oh, well, you gotta try to put your pride on pause/ Show a little reindeer or some Santa Claus”, sings Michael Bublé in his new hit, The Christmas Sweater.

In this new Hygge season which calls for cocooning and the joy of simple things, the ugly Christmas sweater is a delight for the lovers of knitting, Silent Nights and sentimental gifts to stack under the tree. Let us agree that not every sweater can be a ‘Christmas Sweater’. It must be hand-knit, with coarse, sometimes missed, stitches that are camouflaged with a pompom or an insane pattern. And now, as Bublé’s song says: “Put your Christmas sweater on/ It’s got to be done/ The uglier, the better, hun/ Don’t be the only one/ You’ll light up everybody’s faces”.