Your Guide to Selecting the Best (or Is It Worst?) Ugly Christmas Sweater

Holiday cheer with a touch of nostalgia celebrates garish knitwear from the 1940s to ‘80s

Matching mother/daughter candy cane sweaters from Leisure Arts, 1989. Knitting pattern via Etsy.

Spending quality time with family, drinking cider by the fire and playing Secret Santa all encourage getting into the festive holiday mood. So, too, is taking out your ugly Christmas sweaters—and, if you’re really lucky, showing off your tackiest at an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party. In recent years, ugly Christmas sweaters have emerged with newfound public acceptance: They’re no longer creations made by craft store-obsessed grandmas and foisted upon family members only to wind up at a thrift store. Instead, they’ve become a cultural meme, filled to the brim with an egg nog-sized cup of irony. Even celebrities such as Matt Damon are in on the action. To capitalize on the sweaters’ popularity, a market has sprung up around this wintertime phenomenon, with books, a 5K race and trophies celebrating the Santa face plastered across your chest.

Reindeer a-plenty for the whole family. From Etsy.

Because of their increasing popularity, the brashly festooned sweaters are harder to come by, especially in thrift stores, where it was typically easy to purchase the best (I mean, worst) option. And who really wants to buy a full-priced light-up snowman sweater that’ll be worn only once a year?

One option is to shop eBay’s dedicated ugly Christmas sweater store, where you may find yourself bidding on a pre-worn gaudy pullover.

Another option is to make a sweater from scratch. A labor of love, true, this DIY approach embraces a time when the off-the-rack, last-minute tactic wasn’t an option.

Snowflake sweater, 1950s. From Etsy.

Men, women and children have been channeling the holiday spirit through sweaters adorned with snowflakes, reindeer and Christmas trees for decades. And while the garishness reached new heights in the ’80s and ’90s, even back in the ’40s and ’50s, a touch of graphic flamboyance was essential to a genuine holiday pullover. With these vintage holiday sweater knitting patterns from Etsy, along with an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party invitation on your fridge, now is just the right time to pull out your knitting needles and make something wonderfully ugly.

Reindeer sweater, 1945. Pipe optional. From Etsy.

Bestway vintage holiday sweater. Pipe optional again. From Etsy.

Reindeer sweater, 1940s. From Etsy.

Sweater with pine tree and cabin within unidentified rhombus. From Etsy.

Reindeer sweater, with deer head. From Etsy.

Yet another reindeer sweater, 1950s. From Etsy.

Ski sweaters, 1950s. From Etsy.

More ski sweaters and matching hats, 1950s. From Etsy.

Reindeer sweater, 1951. From Etsy.

Any holiday sweaters catch your eye this season? Submit photos or links in the comments. The uglier the better!

Read more articles about the holidays with our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here

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