Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Awfully Festive: It’s the most hideous time of the year.

It’s that magical time of year—snowmen, Santa Claus, trees with glittering lights, presents wrapped with festive paper and tied with color bows, and really, really, REALLY ugly sweaters.

Times have changed. Instead of hiding that tacky Christmas sweater from grandma under a ski jacket or shoving it into the back of the closet, people proudly show off their gaudy apparel at “ugly Christmas sweater parties.”

Why have ugly Christmas sweater parties become so popular? Well, for the simplest of reasons.

“They’re fun,” said Justine Yelk of New Cumberland.

The dress code at the Dauphin County Courthouse, where she works, is very strict. Everyone works hard, and the business is serious.

“We wanted to come up with fun ways to brighten up the office,” she said. “We came up with theme days. For one, we wore sports-related apparel; for another, we wore red for women’s health. We thought tacky sweaters would be the perfect way to brighten things up for the holidays.”

Yelk said that the sweaters attract a lot of double takes, laughter and jokes.

“The sweaters lightened the mood and gave people something to laugh about throughout the day,” she said.

She added that holiday parties frequently can be formal and stuffy, and the ugly sweater concept is a “nice break.”

Harrisburg resident Alex Craver said the ugly sweater party was a collaborative idea at his office, as well.

“About three-fourths of the firm was excited about it,” he said of his colleagues at Camp Hill-based accounting office Brown Schultz Sheridan & Fritz.

Craver himself was a bit on the fence until he won first prize with his sweater.

“It’s a fun conversation starter, especially when everyone is wearing them,” he said. “You talk about where you got it, why you picked it, and you have a good laugh.”

Wormleysburg resident Randall Gooding, whose friends have an ugly Christmas sweater party annually, described the practice as a stress reliever, a break from a year of hard work.

“This is a chance to relax, have fun and be social,” he said. “We laugh at each other and just have a good time.”

His friends have taken the ugly sweater concept a step further. People wear their tacky tops on a scavenger hunt that takes them to various establishments—stores, bars and restaurants—in the area.

“You have to take pictures of yourself at the different locations,” he said.

Mostly, people just point and laugh or make a joke. However, he admitted that one establishment was not amused and asked the group to leave.

“It’s not for everyone,” he said, with a shrug.

He added that his friends ask people to bring food donations for a local non-profit group, and the charitable focus of the party makes it more meaningful for him.

The Beholder

It is difficult to pinpoint the origin of the ugly Christmas sweater party tradition.

The popularity of the ugly sweater dates back at least as far the 1980s. Actor Chevy Chase wore one in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” and kitschy, tacky, vintage clothes started to gain popularity.

Ugly is in the eye of the beholder, Craver said, but he knew his prize-winning sweater was a champ when he saw it.

“It had to be hideous, and this one fit the bill,” he said. “The colors were awful, and the design was just so tacky.”

Santa is a popular theme, and the one Yelk chose.

“On my sweater, Santa is huge, and he has a big plush beard,” she said. “He takes up the entire front of the sweater. It’s just ridiculous.”

Basically, said Yelk, an ugly sweater is anything that is ridiculous, absurd and laughable.

“I think you basically want to look for something that is very bright and colorful, with lots of textures and add-ons such as lights, pompoms and buttons—things that wouldn’t normally be on a sweater,” she said.

One-Stop Shop

Most people agree that the first rule of ugly sweater shopping is price.

“I wanted something cheap,” Craver admitted.

So, he headed to one of the CommunityAid thrift stores in the area, which is where Gooding also got his sweater. In fact, the organization has made itself a sort of ugly Christmas sweater headquarters.

“We realized that there is a demand for ugly sweaters and that people want to get them affordably,” said Bob Haur, director of communications for CommunityAid. “It made sense to us to be the one-stop shop for these items. We have thousands of them across five stores, and they’re all $9.99 or less.”
Not surprisingly, a lot of the thrift store sweaters come from donations, but the company also contracts with a vendor that brings them a large supply every year.

“It’s so funny to watch people shopping for ugly sweaters,” Haur said. “They laugh and scream, and you hear, ‘You’ve got to see this!’”

There are so many to choose from, he noted, many people walk out with two or three.

“Some people will gravitate toward something that matches their personality,” he said.

For example, animal-lovers may pick a sweater with a reindeer, cat or polar bear, though Haur said he’s seen people go in the opposite direction.

“Sometimes, people will pick something that is totally not like them at all,” he said.

Discount stores such as Wal-Mart and Target also have some deliberately tacky sweaters for the holidays, featuring everything from traditional images such as Santa, reindeer and snowmen to cartoon characters such as Snoopy and Mickey Mouse.

These may be a bit more expensive, ranging from about $15 to $30. If you want to spend a little more (around $15 to $45), a whole range of outrageous and tacky Christmas sweaters can be found online. You even can buy a kit to make your own ugly Christmas sweater.

Haur isn’t surprised that ugly sweater parties have become so popular.

“It’s kitschy and silly. It’s a simple way to make the holidays more festive and fun,” he said. “It has become an important tradition for some people. It’s even been competitive among some friends and families with a little one-upmanship at play.”

To learn more about CommunityAid, including the location of local thrift stores, visit

Author: Joanne Kaldy

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