National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day has come and gone, falling this year on Friday, December 18th. Perhaps you’ve noticed the recent ascent of the Ugly Christmas Sweater or even been invited to an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party. How do we account for this trend and its call to “don we now our tacky apparel”?

Total search of term “ugly Christmas sweater” relative to other searches over time (c/o Google Trends):

Ugly Christmas Sweater parties purportedly originated in Vancouver, Canada, in 2001. Their appeal might seem to stem from their role as a vehicle for ironic nostalgia, an opportunity to revel in all that is festively cheesy. It also might provide an opportunity to express the collective effervescence of the well-intentioned (but hopelessly tacky) holiday apparel from moms and grandmas.

However, The Atlantic points to a more complex reason why we might enjoy the cheesy simplicity offered by Ugly Christmas Sweaters: “If there is a war on Christmas, then the Ugly Christmas Sweater, awesome in its terribleness, is a blissfully demilitarized zone.” This observation pokes fun at the Fox News-style hysterics regarding the “War on Christmas”; despite being commonly called Ugly Christmas Sweaters, the notion seems to persist that their celebration is an inclusive and “safe” one.

We might also consider the generally fraught nature of the holidays (which are financially and emotionally taxing for many), suggesting that the Ugly Sweater could offer an escape from individual holiday stress. There is no shortage of sociologists who can speak to the strain of family, consumerism, and mental health issues that plague the holidays, to say nothing of the particular gendered burdens they produce. Perhaps these parties represent an opportunity to shelve those tensions.

But how do we explain the fervent communal desire for simultaneous festive celebration and escape? Fred Davis notes that nostalgia is invoked during periods of discontinuity. This can occur at the individual level when we use nostalgia to “reassure ourselves of past happiness.” It may also function as a collective response – a “nostalgia orgy”- whereby we collaboratively reassure ourselves of shared past happiness through cultural symbols. The Ugly Christmas Sweater becomes a freighted symbol of past misguided, but genuine, familial affection and unselfconscious enthusiasm for the holidays – it doesn’t matter that we have not all really had the actual experience of receiving such a garment.

Jean Baudrillard might call the process of mythologizing the Ugly Christmas Sweater a simulation, a collapsing between reality and representation. And, as George Ritzer points out, simulation can become a ripe target for corporatization as it can be made more spectacular than its authentic counterparts. We need only look at the shift from the “authentic” prerogative to root through one’s closet for an ugly sweater bestowed by grandma (or even to retrieve from the thrift store a sweater imparted by someone else’s grandma) to the cottage-industry that has sprung up to provide ugly sweaters to the masses. There appears to be a need for collective nostalgia that is outstripped by the supply of “actual” Ugly Christmas Sweaters that we have at our disposal.

Colin Campbell states that consumption involves not just purchasing or using a good or service, but also selecting and enhancing it. Accordingly, our consumptive obligation to the Ugly Christmas Sweater becomes more demanding, individualized and, as Ritzer predicts, spectacular. For examples, we can view this intensive guide for DIY ugly sweaters. If DIY isn’t your style, you can indulge your individual (but mass-produced) tastes in NBA-inspired or cultural mash-up Ugly Christmas Sweaters, or these Ugly Christmas Sweaters that aren’t even sweaters at all.

The ironic appeal of the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party is that one can be deemed festive for partaking, while simultaneously ensuring that one is participating in a”safe” celebration – or even a gentle mockery – of holiday saturation and demands. The ascent of the Ugly Christmas Sweater has involved a transition from ironic nostalgia vehicle to a corporatized form of escapism, one that we are induced to participate in as a “safe” form of  festive simulation that becomes increasingly individualized and demanding in expression.

Re-posted at Pacific Standard.

Kerri Scheer is a PhD Student working in law and regulation in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. She thanks her colleague Allison Meads for insights and edits on this post. You can follow Kerri on Twitter.

The Economy of Christmas

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

1 (3) - Copy

Thanksgiving Mythology

Theorizing Thanksgiving:

Some Fun History:

Cigarette Advertising, on this Holiday:

Thanksgiving, Race, and Gender:

Five minutes for fun facts on this almost-Thanksgiving day in the US. Some of my favorites:

  • Stuffing goes back to at least the 4th century CE.
  • Potatoes are truly an American tuber; it’s grown in every 50 states.
  • Corn is a flower.
  • Meat pies preceded desert pies and they were called “coffins.”
  • In case you need a 15th century aphrodisiac recipe: boiled peas and onions sprinkled with cinnamon, ginger, and cardamon.
  • The average American eats between 3,000 and 5,000 calories at Thanksgiving dinner.

Thanks Mental Floss!


I don’t know for sure what holidays are like at your house, but if they resemble holidays at my house, and most houses in the US, women do almost all of the holiday preparation: decorating, gift buying and wrapping, invitations, neighborhood and church activities, cooking, cooking, more cooking, and cleaning.

Holidays are moments in the year when women, specifically, have extra responsibilities. I distinctly remember my own beloved stepmother telling me — stress making her voice taut — that she just wanted everyone to have a nice Thanksgiving. She would work herself silly to do and have all the right things so that everyone else would have a good time. Multiple this by 10 at Christmas.

This Bed, Bath, & Beyond ad, sent in by Jessica E. and Jessica S., reminded me of the crazy workload that accompanies holidays for women:

Picture_1Alone with the responsibility of making a holiday for everyone else, the woman manages to mobilize technology and goods from BB&B to make it happen. Ironically, the text reads: “When you need a hand with holiday entertaining,” but actual human help in the form of hands is absent. Apparently it’s easier for women to grow five extra arms than it is to get kids and adult men to pitch in.

Anyhoo, be a peach and give your mom a hand this holiday season.

Originally published in 2009.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

6a00d83451ccbc69e2010536215b89970bPre-prepared frozen meals pre-dated the Swanson “TV dinner,” but it was Swanson who brought the aluminum tray — previously only seen in taverns and airplanes — into the home.

They were motivated by opportunity and necessity. The necessity went something like this, or so the story goes: After the 1953 Thanksgiving holiday, Swanson found themselves up to their ears in turkey. They had overestimated demand, and there they were, with 260 tons of frozen turkey and the next bird holiday 364 days away. So, they slapped together a frozen turkey dinner, with peas and mashed potatoes, and held their breath.


The opportunity was the meteoric rise of living room television sets. In 1950, only 9% of American households had TVs. By 1953, 45% of households had one. The next year, that number would rise to 56%. Swanson’s overstock of turkeys occurred at exactly the same moment that owning a television became the new hot thing. So, Swanson tied their advertising directly to TV watching, inventing the phrase “TV dinner.”


Rumor is that Swanson wasn’t optimistic, but the dinners outsold their expectations. They planned to sell 5,000 turkey TV dinners that first year, in 1954, but they ended up selling 10 million.

So, if you celebrate Thanksgiving and are eating a TV dinner tonight instead of a whole bird, know that you, too, are part of a true American tradition.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The practice of pairing the word “men” (which refers to adults) with “girls” (which does not) reinforces a gender hierarchy by mapping it onto age.  Jason S. discovered an example of this tendency at Halloween Adventure (East Village, NYC) and snapped a picture to send in:


Sara P. found another example, this time from iparty.  The flyer puts a girl and a boy side-by-side in police officer costumes.  The boy’s is labeled “policeman” and the girl’s is labeled “police girl.”


This type of language often goes unnoticed, but it sends a ubiquitous gender message about how seriously we should take men and women.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

In 2012, I wrote about the heteronormativity in the couples Halloween costume category at Party City. Now, it’s 2015 and Party City has changed.

I counted all 103 costume sets, dividing them into whether they featured a heterosexual couple, a man-man couple, a woman-woman couple, or were ambiguous. Among them, 74 were aimed at heterosexuals, 12 were for men with men, and 3 were for women with women.

3 5

It might be too strong to say that the heteronormativity is gone. There are still more man-woman couples represented than man-man or woman-woman couples, but they’re very centrally there.

This makes people in similar-sex couples more visible. It also has the interesting effect of making some costumes not-so-obviously heterosexual anymore, like the bears or the Ghostbuster costumes. I counted 14 that were at least a little ambiguous as to whether they were intended for a similar-sex or other-sex couple.



Party City is not doing anything overly clever. Clearly they’re just looking for costumes they already have and putting them in combinations that might sell. And they could do a better job about thinking up woman-woman sets. But, there they are. And that’s a real change.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.